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If they were outfitted with helicopter blades, some of the young, twirling ballet stars of "First Position" could probably achieve liftoff. They meet at the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition where the youngest vie for awards, the in-betweens for dance scholarships and the oldest for professional contracts.
Some are pushed along by economic necessity, like 16-year-old Joan Sebastian, whose family sent him from Colombia to the United States to pursue a dance career. Others have type-A parents, such as 12-year-old Miko and little brother Jules, whose taskmaster mom is a zealot for achievement. Some are propelled by competitive determination.
Michaela, 14, an adoptee from Sierra Leone, is resolved to make her mark in a discipline where African-Americans are scarce. The dancers are astonishing in motion. One instructor tells his student, "You should be flying, not jumping," and sometime you would swear they are.
Director Bess Kargman's documentary is on firm footing when it presents them as glorious whirlwinds, transforming the act of watching dance into an almost participatory experience. It's even better delving into their offstage lives.
Her portrait of 17-year-old Rebecca, nicknamed "Barbie" for her wholesome blond beauty and nice-princess mannerisms, makes the girl a full-blown character, rather than a type. There's a sweet preadolescent love affair between 11-year-old Aran and his adoring friend Gaya, who became a ballerina herself to be closer to him. Even the sideline personalities are vivid.
It's in the quick audience-reaction shots of the young dancers' exultant parents and cringing private instructors that the movie finds its most nakedly human moments.
When Neanderthal hunters learned to drive one or two mastodons off a cliff, the tribe ate well for weeks. When they stampeded the whole herd over a cliff, the tribe's own survival was threatened.
That's what British historian Ronald Wright calls a "progress trap." It's a crisis that occurs when innovators deplete the very elements that allowed them to initially advance, like parasites killing off their host. The accessible, visually striking and lucidly reasoned "Surviving Progress" argues that civilization is now at such a brink, like the Sumerians, Mayans and Easter Islanders of old. "Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite natural resources doesn't make sense. It's bound to collapse," says naturalist Jane Goodall.
Unfortunately, like our hominid ancestors, we are wired for short-term rather than long-term decisionmaking. Co-directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks have assembled a stellar cast of interviewees ranging from astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and genome researcher J. Craig Venter to behavioral scientists to economists to the former Brazilian minister of the environment. They raise warnings that laissez-faire capitalism and growing consumer demand in the developing world threaten to shred the social fabric and despoil the planet's natural resources. They shy away from proposing solutions, and the filmmakers capture humanizing clashes that illustrate the challenges of finding a balance that serves all parties.
In the Amazon we observe arguments between sawmill laborers and deforestation activists. In China we meet an entrepreneur leading cross-country auto tours who sulks when his college professor father mentions air pollution.
"Surviving Progress" offers no glib answers to such conflicting interests, but to fault the movie for that is like blaming a brilliantly constructed fire alarm for not being a hose.
GOD BLESS AMERICA
One of the great principles of comedy is that humor is tragedy seen through a different lens. The proudly misanthropic standup-turned-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait takes that premise to 11 in his vigilante satire "God Bless America."
"Mad Men" alum Joel Murray is Frank, a sad-sack salaryman who's had it up to here with modern society's celebration of all that is shallow, cruel and toxic. His co-workers regurgitate talk-radio jabber and twist his gestures of kindness into Human Resources violations. Little do they suspect that beneath Frank's mild-mannered camouflage hides a stick of human dynamite. Terminally ticked off, he dedicates himself to murdering loathsome people.
First up is a spoiled-brat reality star from a show clearly modeled on MTV's "My Super Sweet 16." Maddie Hasson plays the high-school diva with such repugnant gusto that her demise is hilarious and awful all at once. The hit earns Frank a teen accomplice (Tara Lynne Barr), who pouts when she realizes they will be "a platonic Bonnie and Clyde." Frank simply wants to kill people who aren't nice; his partner in crime wants to kill everybody. The comedy makes the killing spree morally dubious. We're never invited to exult in the bloodshed, but Goldthwait's ranting dialogue is stingingly funny and Murray and Barr are so agreeable you may find yourself rooting for "the bad guys."