At first glance, "Racing Dreams" might seem like too light a subject for a feature-length documentary. After all, go-kart racing will remind most people -- at least superficially -- of those little oval tracks anyone can race on at family fun centers.
But it's a serious sport, and many of the 11- to 13-year-olds who compete in the World Karting Association championships go on to careers in the pros. If one thinks of NASCAR as the big leagues and karting as its training ground, you'll see that this new film by Marshall Curry is the most compelling look at youth sports since "Hoop Dreams," the ground-breaking documentary that clearly inspired "Racing Dreams."
Curry follows three promising racers for a year. Like "Hoop Dreams," he includes all the major races of the season, but doesn't let the contests themselves dominate the film. It's the exploration of what these youngsters and their families give up to prepare for, and recover from, their sport that's the real focus.
For example, Annabeth Barnes, a rookie on the national karting circuit, reveals that last year they spent 48 out of 52 weekends racing. That's innumerable birthday celebrations, parties and other time spent hanging out with her friends that she gives up to race. Think about how important those relationships were in your life when you were 11 going on 12, and what it would be like to be absent for most of it.
One of the few girls competing at a high level, Annabeth is hoping to break into a NASCAR program that recruits minority and female drivers. Despite being new to the national competition, she does quite well, but is still frustrated by not coming in first, which is what she's used to.
Beyond the sheer thrill of going around a track at 70 m.p.h., she explains the appeal: "When you're 11 or 12, basically your whole life is filled with people telling you what to do. But when you're racing, you make your own decisions."
The film is especially interested in the relationship between the kid racers and their parents. All of them push their offspring hard, but don't seem obsessed with it. When Annabeth's interest in boys -- including another racer -- multiplies overnight, her dad seems resigned to the idea that racing may not become her whole life.
Thirteen-year-old Brandon Warren has a more complicated family life. Both his parents have been in and out of trouble related to drugs, so he's been raised by his grandparents in a trailer home. His grandfather is stern and gruff, and makes frequent references to giving Brandon "a whuppin'," but his affection and pride is palpable.
Things grow more tense when Brandon's father comes to stay with them for a while. At first it seems like they're off to a fresh start, with his dad lamenting his past mistakes and supporting his son's racing ambitions. But things eventually crumble in a heartbreaking turn of events. Brandon, rambunctious and rebellious, plays it off, but it's clear his father's newest abandonment has him hurting.
Perhaps the most promising of the three drivers is Josh Hobson. Josh, who dominates his racing class like Tiger Woods, is being groomed to not only drive race cars but also work the public relations angle. Watching this tiny guy giving speeches after his latest win, or hobnobbing with potential sponsors, is both impressive and off-putting.
On the one hand, he and his father clearly recognize the realities of breaking into the top echelons of pro racing, and are happy to play the game if it advances Josh closer toward his dreams. Still, it can be disillusioning to think of a 13-year-old kid studying to be a slick and soulless professional. When Josh gets a chance to meet his idol Jeff Gordon, he's clearly bowled over by it, but Gordon barely gives him the time of day. Is this really what he aspires to be?
The financial implications for their families are staggering. Facing a pile of bills, Josh's dad estimates every race they compete in costs them $5,000. Brandon knows that he can't advance to the next level of racing because his grandparents lack the resources, which lends his final chance for a championship a special resonance.
Josh and Annabeth are more well-to-do, but it's still a huge risk to take it to the next level -- buying a full-sized race car for them to compete in. (One of the more gobsmacking revelations is that the minimum age to drive on this next circuit is 12.)
The scene where Annabeth climbs into a race car for the first time and starts it up is a knockout moment. After wavering about whether she wants to continue racing, the second she hears that 500-horsepower engine fire up, you can see her fate has been sealed.
"Racing Dreams" is a very big movie about little racers. Their quest to make it all the way is a wrenching, often sad, but powerful saga. The finish line is just their beginning.