In topic it calls to mind Jill Krementz’s much-loved photo-heavy book set at the School of American Ballet, A Very Young Dancer, which a whole generation of young girls pored over after its 1976 publication. (For me, Krementz’s book was crack you could get with a library card.) But there is a modern twist. First Position introduces the competitors, explores their background in the most appealing light and then heads into the contest itself, a tried and true narrative approach that has worked for everything from Spellbound to television’s American-Idol. But while it is less cinematically innovative than last year’s dance documentary darling Pina, with its 3-D excitement and its en plein air dancing, first-time director Kargman triumphs by picking characters who largely defy expectations — however unfair it may be to still think of waifish, pink-clad girls in tutus and Russian men in tights when thinking of ballet dancers.
But it’s Sierra Leone war orphan Michaela DePrince who has the most amazing backstory. Adopted by a middle-class Jewish couple in Philadelphia after she and her family endured unspeakable horrors in Africa (she witnessed her parents being killed by rebels), she fell in love with dance and got the best training her modest and oh-so-loving adoptive parents could provide. Michaela won multiple scholarships to prestigious schools, including the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. She persevered in spite of considerable challenges, including faulty skin pigmentation. Even on the eve of the film’s competition, she suffers severe foot damage. But what spirit and determination!