You won’t catch me watching one of the various reality shows such as Dance Moms where children are the participants but the parents are the attraction. Part of the reason is that those shows are totally fake. The bigger part of the reason is that I don’t want to be a part of a society which assumes that the unspeakable sort of behavior that is the “dance mom” stereotype is a thing we want to see on TV. What society do I want to be a part of? Well, one populated by the subjects of the 2009 documentary Racing Dreams is would be better.
The sport in this case is go-kart racing; essentially, the Little League of NASCAR (superstar stock-car racer Jeff Gordon, who appears briefly in the film, is a former national champion of “karting”). We focus on three competitors: Josh, a junior-class phenom whose victories have piled up such that he is practically a corporation unto himself; Annabeth, a junior-class up-and-comer who understands that someday she could be NASCAR’s answer to Danica Patrick; and Brandon, whose troubled family life burdens his champion-level talent in the senior class.
In this case, “junior class” and “senior class” is all relative, as none of the kids is older than 12 at the start of the movie. Thus we have the biggest problem for a documentary: kids, even more than adults, are aware of the camera and tend to perform for it. Although the budding romance that develops between Annabeth and Brandon is cute to watch happen, it’s hard not to wonder if the same thing would have happened if the cameras weren’t present. Brandon spends most of the first half of the film goofing around for the camera as it is.
With Josh, though, the presence of the camera says something very interesting about the sport itself. NASCAR drivers are well-trained to perform for the camera, mentioning the sponsors at every opportunity and making sure not to say anything offensive when a camera is pointed in their direction. So Josh’s awareness of the camera and his attempts to perform for it, usually a no-no in documentaries, actually give us better insight into who he is. Everybody in the movie loves racing, but only Josh seems interested in turning into a little Jeff Gordon before our eyes.
This movie also deserves a lot of credit for teaching the uninitiated about racing as a sport. With the help of an on-screen animation, Annabeth taught me more about the strategy of the sport than any man thirty years her senior has yet managed to do on ESPN’S SportsCenter. The movie also illuminates the curious intersection of sport and capitalism that racing occupies; although Brandon has the most raw talent of the three kids in the film, it’s treated as a given that he’s done with the sport after the season portrayed, because he just can’t afford to move from go-karts to real cars. Basketball or football might try to keep such talent in the fold for as long as possible, but the sponsor-driven economy of NASCAR is perfectly happy to leave the poor kids behind.
The biggest difference between the kids’ go-karts and the stock cars that they would like to drive is that a stock car has turned its driver’s compartment into a veritable fortress, while a go-kart leaves the kids’ heads and shoulders open. For that reason, I thought a big drawback of the film is that it leaves the issue of these kids’ safety virtually untouched. The opening racing montage and the climactic race each include a horrific crash in which a go-kart flips upside down, seeming to slam its driver head first into the ground. But the opening montage skips so quickly past its worst crash that it’s difficult to believe what you’ve just seen, and the climactic race is completely focused on who was at fault for causing the crash instead of the driver’s condition.
There’s a discussion with Josh’s mother about the dangers involved – after all, he wants to enter a sport whose most famous athlete died on the field – but we never have any idea just how dangerous karting itself might be. Instead the mere danger of a crash is played up during many of he racing scenes to make them more exciting. NASCAR is often accused of ignoring its drivers’ safety in favor of its audience, since crash-heavy races are more exciting for the spectators; whether or not that’s the case for the adults, it seems unquestionably true of the kids.
Most of the effort that might have gone into chronicling Brandon’s difficult family situation instead. He lives with, and is coached by, his grandparents as both of his parents struggle against drugs and the wrong side of the law. Again, the awareness of the camera by characters in the movie is actually a plus here; one gets the sense that Brandon’s father says all the right things for the camera at first – he’s speaking to the sponsors, as it were – and then he actively avoids the camera later on as his previous life intrudes. This is one of the few documentaries I’ve ever seen where the subjects’ performance for the camera makes the movie more accurate, not less.
In the end, I was not at all surprised that Racing Dreams was co-produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Karting often seems like pro wrestling in the way that it turns young athletes into commodities by indoctrinating them into an expensive and highly dangerous sport; Racing Dreams occasionally seems too concerned with being crowd-pleasing in the same way that many of Johnson’s movies do. But good documentary work can get past those issues, and for the most part, that’s what Racing Dreams has going for it.
Reviewed by Mark Young