Winner of the Best Documentary prize at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Indianapolis International Film Festival, director Marshall Curry's "Racing Dreams" foray into the peewee leagues of NASCAR is an entertaining, involving and surprisingly heartfelt year-long journey into the lives of three 'tweens who are considered at the top of the World Karting Association world.
Brandon Warren has, arguably, the most involving story of "Racing Dreams." Hobson is 13-years-old in the film, being raised by his grandparents with occasional involvement by his frequently in trouble father, whose presence causes a palpable tension even in the scenes caught on film. Brandon is a feisty, volatile young man and driver whose previous year's attempt to win the Senior Division championship was cut short by his disqualification from a race for rough driving. Despite an obviously close relationship with his grandfather, Brandon has the look and feeling of a young man constantly on edge and in danger of following in his father's footsteps.
Josh Hobson, on the other hand, is a 12-year-old burgeoning entrepreneur determined to master the art of schmoozing and marketing himself while racing to the top of karting's Junior Division. Josh's racing continues a family tradition and appears as much to be a way of bonding with his father as it is a vocational choice. With races costing up to $10,000, however, the family finances are getting stressed and choices will have to be made in the coming year.
Annabeth Barnes, the youngest and, arguably, the most inspirational story of the trio, is an 11-year-old whose storyline may resonate most with both young boys and girls. Annabeth has always been fiercely devoted to racing, stating at one point "When you are 11, your whole life is filled with people telling you what to do. But when you're racing you're totally independent." Annabeth is a vibrant and sweet young girl who isn't yet at the top of the Junior Division where Josh reigns as king, yet she is viewed as one of its most promising "minority" drivers and is racing not so much for the championship but to be accepted into NASCAR's diversity program, affording her both mentoring and financial support for future endeavors.
Edited into a 90-minute documentary from 500 hours of camera footage, "Racing Dreams" will most often be compared to 2002's similarly kid-driven "Spellbound" or the lesser known "Mad Hot Ballroom," though it actually most resembles the involving basketball doc "Hoop Dreams" in its realistic portrayal of its young subjects and its stellar camera work in capturing their daily lives.
All of the kids, including the occasionally misguided Brandon, appear to be genuinely good kids, though Curry's extended attention to a burgeoning "romance" between 13-year-old Brandon and 11-year-old Annabeth feels off-putting given that it's placed squarely during the time when Brandon is also struggling to hold on due to increased family stressors. While there's no denying that both 11 and 13 year olds are just beginning to notice the opposite sex, there's an uneasiness in these scenes, especially a playful scene in the field, that detracts from the overall spirit, energy and inspirational tone of "Racing Dreams."
While this storyline was bothersome, it's easy to admire Curry's willingness to go there and the willingness of Brandon, Annabeth and Josh to allow the cameras to move through the everyday struggles of their lives.
For those who lack insight into the true development of racing's drivers, "Racing Dreams" is revelatory in showing the sacrifices, personally and financially, that take place.
Josh's family has sacrificed financial stability to support their son and his dreams and, perhaps, his father is living vicariously through his son.
Annabeth's mother, especially, has worked in an unsatisfying job and is committed to doing whatever it takes to support her daughter and provide her every opportunity she wants. On the flip side, Annabeth herself is revelatory in sharing the struggles to balance being a "girl" with being a racer. Her insights into peer pressure, normal development and life in middle school are wise beyond her years.
Brandon, much like Josh, is also facing the financial impact of racing and the possibility that this may be his final year. Will he go out a champion or will his demons get the best of him?
It's baffling and perhaps a bit jarring to the senses that these 11-13 year olds are years away from being able to get a drivers license, yet are able to drive their karts at speeds in excess of 70 mph in sanctioned races. At the age of 12, as well, these drivers are able to move up into real "stock cars," a fact of which this writer was not even aware despite a lifelong history of racing in the family.
Exhilarating and inspiring, deeply personal and extraordinarily insightful, "Racing Dreams" is yet another satisfying and entertaining doc from the Oscar-nominated Marshall Curry and will likely be one of 2009's more market-friendly efforts with a solid chance at decent receipts in limited theatrical release.