Compulsively watchable, at once wickedly satirical and grandly romantic, first-time director Baz Luhrman’s Australian comedy-romance Strictly Ballroom is certainly the funniest movie ever made about ballroom dancing, but it’s more than that.
It’s also a winsome love story, a bittersweet tale of regret and opportunities lost, of hopes and dreams defeated by opposition and doubt, and a heartfelt celebration of living life to the fullest in defiance of all naysayers.
Strictly Ballroom starts as an edgy, in-your-face mockumentary satirizing the rigid pretensions of people who take competitive ballroom dancing way too seriously. Then by imperceptible degrees it morphs into a complicated tale of generations and families, ultimately turning in a crowd-pleasing fairy-tale ending.
Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) has ballroom dancing in his blood. His controlling mother (Pat Thomson), a contender in her day, runs a dance studio, and has groomed Scott since childhood for the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix. But Scott has a rebellious streak in him, and his obstinate penchant for flashy, crowd-pleasing but unapproved moves threatens to derail his competitive career.
This seems like the makings of a Footloose-style formula tale of rebellious youth versus hidebound establishment, and so it is — but Strictly Ballroom has some surprises up its sleeve, and it turns out that Scott himself has a lot to learn from some unexpected sources. A confrontation with the poor family of his ugly-duckling secret partner Fran (Tara Morice) doesn’t go at all the way one would expect, and the story’s most put-upon character is a worm that turns with belated but rousing conviction, and provides what may be the cinema’s one transcendently great instance of an otherwise banal movie cliché, the Slow Clap.
Strictly Ballroom is the film that Luhrmann was trying to outdo when he made Moulin Rouge! (these two films, together with Romeo + Juliet, compose Luhrmann’s "Red Curtain" trilogy). He failed. Both films are full of caricatures and stereotypes, but Strictly Ballroom centers on honest-to-goodness characters, relationships, and choices that you can actually care about.
In Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann’s hyper-energetic storytelling style grabs viewers by the lapels; by Moulin Rouge! he’s devolved into merely whacking them over the head. Though made for a fraction of the later film’s budget and with no big stars, Strictly Ballroom is the better film in every way.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.