If you're not a person who cries during movies, beware of taking your softer friends to see Racing Dreams. They will see your dry eyes at the film's finale, and once they've finished with their Kleenex, they will berate you for having no heart. Because Racing Dreams isn't just a tearjerker, it's based on a true story, and contains the kind of uplifting moments that even the most craftily manufactured Hollywood story can't pull off.
It helps that the movie is also really good, and doesn't just trade on sentiment, even though it's about three ridiculously cute kids and their dreams of being NASCAR drivers. With great skill director Marshall Curry introduces the main characters, then follows their yearlong journey through the World Karting Association's championship circuit, in which 11-13-year-old kids travel all over the country on the weekends to drive tiny vehicles at 70 mph. The sport seems-- and probably is-- ridiculously dangerous, but also packed with the usual enthusiastic parents on the sidelines, and fresh-faced kids who are still learning the lessons of good sportsmanship.
The three leads don't exactly exemplify the diversity of the sport-- two are Southerners, all are white, but one is female-- but definitely capture the range of emotions involved, especially at the tender age of 12 and 13. Josh is a Michigan middle schooler who races as a way of bonding with his dad, and focuses as much on the skills of the sport as the networking and media appearances-- he watches NASCAR races to emulate the post-game speeches the drivers make. Brandon, by contrast, is a rough-hewn trailer park kid being raised by his grandparents, prone to getting in fights at school but clearly devoted to his family, and filled with natural racing talent. And Annabeth, a lanky 12-year-old tomboy, is devoted to racing but also pulled by the hair, makeup and boys that her friends are suddenly interested in.
I'll admit I identified greatly with Annabeth, having never driven a go-kart but remembering clearly the immense challenges of being a girl at that age. But my heart also broke for Brandon, who constantly seeks approval from his ex-convict father, who is intermittently part of his life. And Josh is the kind of precocious future businessman who exemplifies a certain kind of American dream, in which it's never too young to start shaking hands and working hard to get what you want.
The comparisons between Racing Dreams and the 2002 spelling bee doc Spellbound are inevitable, and while Racing Dreams doesn't necessarily improve on the "following several kids and their ambitions" formula, it's even more fascinating for its glimpse into an American subculture that many people-- particularly those attending the Tribeca Film Festival-- probably know nothing about. As a Southerner it was soothing to hear so many accents from my chlidhood, but just as eye-opening to look into this corner of a world so familiar. For born and bred New Yorkers the movie is probably close to culture shock.
Racing Dreams won the Tribeca documentary jury prize, and will doubtlessly show up in theaters later this year. See it and prepare your tear ducts.