Someone in the New York Public Schools system came up with the curious but laudable idea of forcing all the district's fifth graders to go through ballroom dance training, with the top schools competing annually for a coveted trophy. Because this is New York, you have literally thousands of kids from all ethnic and economic backgrounds trying to out-dance each other. This is an easy recipe for a cute, lively documentary, and Mad Hot Ballroom delivers the goods.
Director Agrelo takes her camera to three specific schools: One in tony Tribeca, where the vaguely privileged students are driven, to say the least; one in solidly middle-class Bensonhurst, where both Italian-American and Chinese-American kids have adopted the easy-going "fuhgeddaboutit" demeanor of their Brooklyn surroundings; and finally (and most pervasively) one in dirt-poor Upper Manhattan, where a dozen struggling Dominican children become the obvious underdog contenders for the prize - and for audiences' hearts.
The first half of the film is forgettable, as it spends too much time on kids-say-the-darndest-things scenes instead of telling a story. But the second half - once we head into the quarter-finals - brings with it all the requisite suspense and joy that the film promises.
Comparisons to 2002's Spellbound are inevitable: Charming youngsters in heated, tense competition. But whereas the amazing Spellbound painted an almost epic portrait of the American dream while intimately focusing on eight children and their families, Mad Hot Ballroom's cast of dozens seem practically anonymous, the stakes symbolic but not exactly crucial. And aside from a couple of surface class comparisons - the film's only depth comes from the contrasts it finds between each school's reactions to defeat - Mad Hot Ballroom is purely entertainment, nothing more. That's enough to make it a fun movie to take your folks to. But not enough to really resonate afterwards the way a great film like Spellbound did.