Film review: Racing Dreams (MFF 2009)

Racing Dreams
Marshall Curry Productions LLC, Reason Pictures, White Buffalo Entertainment

STARRING Annabeth Barnes, Josh Hobson, Brandon Warren
PRODUCED BY Bristol Baughan, Marshall Curry
DIRECTED BY Marshall Curry

SHOT BY Marshall Curry, Peter Gordon, Wolfgang Held, Alan Jacobsen
EDITED BY Marshall Curry, Matthew Hamachek, Mary Manhardt
MUSIC BY The National, Joel Goodman

Screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival, 2009-09-24


Racing Dreams details the professional and personal lives of three competitive racers… three racers who have yet to hit puberty. Josh (12), Brandon (12) and Annabeth (11) race modified go-karts, capable of 60-80 mph, in the “little league of NASCAR.” Their accomplishments and ambition are the envy of those three times their respective ages. The film is bookmarked by five pivotal races in the World Karting Association’s National Championship and the filler – which could’ve been a major hindrance to the film’s momentum – absolutely sustains our interest and adds a touching and necessary resonance. Each child’s personal arc is a narrative in itself… I’ll try to be brief, but I find that I like talking about this.

Young Josh is any prep school’s wet dream. He begins the school day by reciting an eloquent, erudite little motivational speech (today’s lesson: “The choice is yours.”) to his entire school over the loudspeaker – but that’s frankly the way he always sounds. He is a business unto himself, the only risk he runs is being too business – the 12 year old speaks like 35 year old middle management (but the kind we don’t resent). Oh, and he wins every race he’s in. It’s too easy to use the word ‘driven’ here. His perhaps overly supportive father drains the family’s resources, as karting is not remotely an inexpensive hobby, to give his son precious opportunity. Note: each of the film’s families is distinct American middle-class. We can root for them. Cutest moments? Josh standing outside his trailer gazing at his trophy in the window (to complement a room filled with his trophies), and Josh stuttering in the shadow of NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon who doles out advice between autographs.

Brandon is a little firecracker hothead, but we love him. Boundless energy, thrill-seeking whenever he can, speedily motorcycling around his back country in spare time… Brandon has spunk to spare. His jovial, strong grandfather can handle his excessive personality and does his best to curb daddy’s bloody qualities when they perk up – daddy just got out of jail and is now awkwardly “around.” Despite Brandon’s unquestioned talent – he’s a freaking superstar – at the precipice of victory the previous year he was thwarted by a disqualification for playing too rough for the other children – and this stigmata will bleed again on the annum.

Annabeth is, I dunno, the cutest 11 year old ever? Halfway through the film she, without fanfare, suddenly has braces. There being no female NASCAR drivers, Annabeth has “something to prove” (this may as well be the film’s tagline). Like dramatic clockwork, Annabeth hits puberty and suddenly racing’s import – not the vogue among (or even comprehended by) her classmates – is called into question.

I attended the inaugural screening of the Milwaukee Film Festival and Racing Dreams was first up. Sitting directly behind me, unbeknownst, were all those involved with the film. I went in blind, and about 2/3 of the way through the film became convinced that what I was watching was staged – the kids, the drama in their lives, the dialogue, was all working simply too well. The film ended and the Q&A began, and it took me a few minutes to adjust. Now I’m quite surprised to find how much I enjoyed the experience. Any documentary works on the merits of two factors: the inherent drama within the subject(s) and the tone applied by the filmmaker. I’ll recall The Devil and Daniel Johnston: if ever there was a prime docu subject, it’s Johnston, but the resulting film was made by a person incapable of understanding Johnston’s depth, and the film is forgettable – a disservice. In Racing Dreams, from the get-go, I was very pleased with both. Curry demonstrates intelligence, appreciation and positivity that were quite welcome. I’m actually a bit wary to speak like this – I’m not normally so complimentary. But those kids were just too damn clever, charming, ambitious and interesting, and Curry was good to them. Each line (seriously) included in the cut contained a very successful balance of subtext without being hindered by sounding overly self-reflexive. Example: young hothead Brandon and the wonderful Annabeth begin, on their own, a flirtation which created an ideal subplot. With only five races in the film, plenty of time had to be spent detailing the lives of the children and their families, yet the pace never slackened – and it definitely could have. Another: Brandon is raised by his grandfather, as his real father had been in jail for most of Brandon’s life. His father enters the story and his awkward gestures toward his son, as well as his own riddling guilt and pain – and the growingly jagged trajectory of his lifeline – are captured and shown in so timely a manner that, as I said, it seemed written. Each kid is defined. Seeing them in person at the Q&A, now 14 and 15 years old, I felt that I knew them intimately. Plenty of documentaries do worse. Plenty of documentaries are forced, or the subjects simply don’t have enough going on to warrant the time we spend with them. Plenty of editors do not successfully balance the footage. It’s my opinion that Racing Dreams did everything right. To a fairly ridiculous extent. I’ll never be this nice again.

Winner of Best Documentary at Tribeca Film Festival, and a shoe-in for the respective Oscar.

written by David Ashley