With the second season of Masterchef Junior premiering on November 4, Kazia thought it was time to revisit a handful of documentaries about gifted kids competing in the arts.
I am a crier. Anything vaguely hopeful or uplifting (not to mention sad) gets the waterworks going. It’s no surprise that, as an English major and a children’s librarian, stories about young people and the arts get me every time. These documentaries are incredibly moving, but there’s also something hilariously incongruous about watching gifted kids and teens working ridiculously hard to achieve artistic accomplishment while I sit on my bed, in my pajamas, watching them while avoiding homework. So if you too would like to simultaneously feel inspired and inadequate, look no further!
First Position (2011)
First Position follows six dancers who are training for and competing in the Youth American Grand Prix, an annual dance competition for a small number of extremely competitive scholarships and contracts for dancers ages 9-19. The documentary looks not just at their experiences training for and competing in the Grand Prix, but also their family lives and what started them dancing. It’s completely involving – plus, we get to see them all dance beautifully.
Shakespeare High (2012)
Shakespeare High looks at the 90th annual Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival. Teams from 50 schools prepare scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and Macbeth, and the documentary follows teams from just a few schools, and in particular the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and Hesperia High School (an underprivileged school). The dedication and enthusiasm of the teams is inspiring, and you’re treated to snippets of wholly unique interpretations of the Bard.
Louder Than a Bomb (2010)
Louder Than a Bomb looks at the titular youth poetry slam, held annually in Chicago. Following a handful of high school teams as they prepare for the 2008 competition, the documentary makes us privy to the participants’ artistic inspirations and preparation processes, and gives us access to their performances at the slam.
Fame High (2013)
Fame High follows four students (a dancer, a singer, an actor, and a jazz pianist) at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (also featured in Shakespeare High). Their struggles to shape their artistic identities while balancing pressures from school, family, their peers, and their industries are compelling.
Masterchef Junior (2013-present)
Of course, I can’t not mention the show that kicked off this post. Even though it’s a “reality competition” show and we all know about the levels of realism in reality shows, this show has just as much realism as any documentary. 24 applicants between the ages of 8 and 13 audition for 12 slots in the competition, and as each week passes contestants are eliminated. Group and solo challenges test the limits of the young chefs, but host Gordon Ramsey is surprisingly encouraging without being patronizing, lightly assisting contestants when things go horribly awry while giving them legitimate feedback on their dishes. Plus, you will never know tension until you wait for an eight-year-old contestant to cut open her chocolate lava cake and see if it’s melted inside.
If you’re looking for more inspiring Shakespeare:
Although it’s not a documentary about kids, Shakespeare Behind Bars is just as moving as those mentioned above. It follows inmates at Kentucky’s Luther Luckett Correctional Complex as they prepare to perform The Tempest. The inmates use their roles as a way to process their crimes and their positions in society, and in doing so the transformative power of the arts becomes apparent.
If you’re looking for more about the experiences of young ballerinas:
Michaela DePrince, one of the six dancers featured in First Position, just released a memoir!
If you’re looking for more slam poetry:
Check out Button Poetry on Youtube, which features incredible slam poetry by people of all ages.