James certainly has a point, for Mad Hot Ballroom bears more than a nodding resemblance to Spellbound, the 2003 spelling bee hit. Take precocious ten and eleven year olds from a variety of social and economic backgrounds and follow them to the big tournament where the question becomes, which adorable under- or over-privileged kid will win?
New York's public elementary schools, which range in quality from superb to appalling, have had a ballroom dancing requirement for fifth graders in place for a decade. Several dozen schools send teams to the city tournament, and Marilyn Agrelo's film focuses on three. Only one--P.S. 115 from the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights--is truly a contender, but Agrelo finds two other schools to broaden the social spectrum of her film. The hip kids who attend P.S. 150 in Tribeca have an uncanny ability to sound like their culture-industry parents, while the down-to-earth Italians and Asians from P.S. 112 in Brooklyn provide a breath of normalcy away from their rivals.
No doubt due to the number of children involved, and the attenuated shooting schedule, Agrelo's film can feel frustratingly superficial. Her efforts to dig into the cultural subtext of her story aren't always sufficient: Her film's most sensational dancer, a bedroom-eyed Dominican rumba specialist named Wilson, speaks no English and we learn very little about him. But his dancing is something to behold.
Mad Hot Ballroom opens Friday.