Back in 2002, I saw the excellent spelling bee documentary Spellbound. It featured a structure that is now familiar to me: in the film’s first half, we meet the competitors. In the second half, we watch them compete. It’s effective narrative arc: make us about the characters, then we can watch them succeed and fail. For the dorky elite of the spelling bee world, it made for a pretty riveting film.
Yesterday I watched Word Play, a 2006 film that applies pretty much exactly the same model to the world of competitive crossword puzzles. Though it lacks the emotional thumb screws that competing kids offer (replacing them with crossword-loving celebrities like Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton and the Indigo Girls), the film is another great example of what I’ve come to call “the competition documentary”.
While in Winnipeg last week, I caught part of Ballet Girls on Bravo, yet another film that seems to fit this sub-genre:
Ballet Girls is a behind-the-scenes documentary series that follows nine girls on a quest to land the coveted role of Clara in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker. The girls come from across Canada – gap-toothed 10-year-olds and willowy teens with ballerina dreams dancing in their heads. In this “Canadian Idol” of the ballet world, ambitious young dancers compete to share the stage with professionals, taking the first pointed step in their own careers as dancers.
The formula seems to go something like this:
Unusual pastime + obsessive over-achievers (sometimes called anoraks) + competition = compelling movie.
I’m sounding more disparaging than I mean to be–I think it’s an effective and entertaining approach. I wonder the origins of this genre are. Surely they predate Spellbound. Maybe they’re risen in popularity as a kind of legitimate alternative to the hapless dude + ridiculous challenge model of reality television. Any suggestions for other films in this sub-genre?