Review: Racing Dreams

Here’s an unqualified recommendation: See this movie.

Annabeth Barnes in 'Racing Dreams'

The basic premise of Racing Dreams, which opened yesterday at limited engagements in Dallas (AMC The Grand 24), Lewisville (Studio Movie Grill), Mesquite (AMC Mesquite 30), and Fort Worth (Rave North East Mall 18),  may sound deceptively limited. Directed by Marshall Curry, the documentary follows three young people, aged 11, 12, and 13, in their pursuit of a national championship title in go-kart racing. But these are not the type of go-karts you can rent at your local amusement center — they zoom along at 60-70 miles per hour — and these are not ordinary kids.

To begin with, they’re obsessed with racing; not just the thrill of driving fast, but the strategic challenge involved in battling other drivers around a tiny oval. Annabeth, aged 11, understands the dynamics involved in finding the best route around the track, not only the driver’s preferred groove for the fastest trip, but the need to defend one’s self from all the other drivers who want to stay in the same groove. And Annabeth is capable of explaining the theory and reality in a brisk, clear manner; I learned more from a few seconds listening to her in voice-over, accompanying an animated display, than I have from years of watching weekend telecasts of professional racers.

The film appears similarly obsessed with racing as a sport, but it quickly establishes its interest in the young speed racers as people. Annabeth is descended from a racing family; her father was a driver in his younger days, and is now a mechanic. He runs a body and repair shop. Her mother works in a textile factory, the dominant industry in the part of North Carolina where they live. It’s not what she dreamed of doing as a young girl, but she does it to support her family, and will do anything to support Annabeth. That’s the same conviction expressed by her father.

Family support is also evident in the life of Josh, aged 12. He talks like a seasoned pro, making sure to thank his sponsors in his post-race interviews, and, win or lose, always congratulates his fellow drivers. He sounds like an old soul trapped inside a kid’s body. Yet his father knows that if Josh is to continue racing, sponsorship is the key, and that being polite and friendly are qualities that sponsors look for, as well as driving ability. So Josh’s conduct, however sincere, has an ulterior motive.

In contrast, Brandon, aged 13, is a wild child. He acts on impulse, loves danger, loves exploring; more than the other kids, he has a need for speed. His family situation is different; yes, there’s love and unconditional support, provided by Brandon’s grandparents, but there’s also an edge of tension, courtesy of Brandon’s troubled father. He’s been in and out of prison and on and off drugs. He comes and goes in Brandon’s life, adding uncertainty and discomfort.

Racing Dreams captures the excitement of racing, commingling that thrill with the bustling, contrary, flighty emotions of  early adolescence. Annabeth begins to question her devotion to the sport. Josh’s parents face a financial crisis. Brandon may be racing for the last time, even as he and Annabeth begin to flirt seriously.

It’s all structured around the five races that make up the World Karting Association’s National Series, held over a period of several months. The film flies by like a narrative film, and it’s perhaps not surprising that a live-action feature is in development. But it’s impossible to imagine any kids better suited to play themselves than Annabeth, Josh, and Brandon. For every moment that sounds a mite too polished and slick, there’s a balancing scene in which we’re reminded that these are young people still figuring out who they are and what they really want to do with their lives.

Racing Dreams is an amazingly good film that feels honest and soul-searching, even as it proves to be altogether entertaining. And it’s hard not to get caught up emotionally with the young drivers and their families, and to wonder where they will go after the finish line.

[More information is available at the film’s official site.]

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