In the first, eleven year-old Aran Bell, who has arrived in New York City for the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious ballet competition, stops on the street and watches another youth on a bicycle climb a steep rock using bursts of energy to hop the cycle up the craggy incline. The moment, no longer than ten seconds at most, encapsulates much of what makes the film work. Even in reposed contemplation, Aran has a commanding presence, and his poise, posture, and easy self-confidence both illustrate the “it factor” that so many judges try to describe and serve as an object lesson in the ways how the hard work of ballet gives to the dancers (positive qualities) as opposed to just taking from them. What is particularly beautiful about that moment is that we see also how Aran’s innate curiosity and attention to his surroundings help him to see a kinship in other kids and other activities and protects him from losing his core self; ballet doesn’t change him into someone else, it refines qualities that are already there.
The other favorite scene is an aside from a working father who wryly admits that he doesn’t suffer from entrepreneur’s guilt about spending so much time at work because his kids work harder than he does. Kids of all generations get stereotyped by their elders as more entitled, more pampered, more lazy, and millennials are particularly prone to be caricatured as obsessed with junk food and video games. It is rewarding, even if you don’t care a lick about ballet, to be reminded of just how hard young people–heck, any people–are willing to work when they have a goal. To quote Soul Surfer, another film about a young person overcoming great obstacles through hard work and perseverance, “I don’t need easy, I just need possible.”
The odds are long against any dancer, and their teachers acknowledge that with national economies in turmoil, ballet companies, like every other business, are cutting back, yet dance gives these young people not merely a road map to economic advancement but a venue where they can continue to believe, despite living in a cynical world, that hard work, dedication, devotion, determination, more hard work, love of craft, family support, and yet more hard work, might just be enough. In a post-bailout world, I grow weary of the fatalism that can accompany recognition of economic hardships wrought by others. The breath of fresh air in First Position is not the argument that hard work always prevails, it is the faithful conviction that hard work still matters.
One could complain, I guess, that Kargman is so busy celebrating the positives of a life devoted to ballet that she glosses over the negatives. Gestures are made in the direction of complexity–a brief montage of bruised and scarred feet is a visible reminder that if we don’t always see pain on these kids’ faces, well, they are trained to be performers who don’t let it show. While I’m sympathetic to this critique, I can’t feel too worked up about it. Ultimately, I would argue, pain can be hidden momentarily, but joy is hard to fake, and there are too many instances where the kids seem happy, even when discussing how hard the training is, to feel like they are exploited. Perhaps Kargman just cherry-picked the best subjects for the film and was fortunate that so many of them ended up doing so well. A more likely explanation for me might be that maybe there is a real connection between loving what you do and, hence, having intrinsic motivation to do it, and success. The former doesn’t guarantee the latter, nothing does, but it does seem to be a common denominator of successful participants in the film and should give us something to think about when we look at those around us of all ages who are successful and worth emulating.