A.V. Club (Milwaukee)

Milwaukee Film Festival spotlight: Racing Dreams
The local film festival opens with the best movie you’ll ever see about go-karting

by Steven Hyden

Racing Dreams screens tonight at 6:30 p.m. at North Shore Cinema in Mequon and 7:30 p.m. at Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee. The film’s three young stars, their parents, director Marshall Curry, and producer Jack Turner will be at both screenings.

Marshall Curry’s excellent documentary Racing Dreams might’ve been funnier—though not nearly as good—if a less sensitive filmmaker had made it. This story about three Middle American tweens competing in the World Karting Association’s National Championship—a training ground for would-be NASCAR drivers—certainly lends itself to cheap laughs if you see it as Days Of Thunder meets Degrassi Junior High. But Racing Dreams, like all first-rate sports movies, is less about who wins and loses than it is about people striving to be the best at what they do in order to transcend the limitations of their lives. So while watching little Dale Earnhardt wannabes whizzing around on go-karts at speeds of up to 80 mph (“with their butts one inch off the ground,” as one racing official observes) is sort of ridiculous (as well as totally awesome), Curry’s focus on the divergent family lives of these young competitors positions Racing Dreams as Hoop Dreams on tiny wheels.

If Racing Dreams treats go-karting with the kind of seriousness normally reserved for health care reform or foreign policy, it’s only because adolescent obsessions often end up charting the course of a person’s life. It’s hard to overstate how lucky Curry was to find such dynamic subjects who could articulate this so well. There’s Josh, a highly decorated go-kart champion who’s already a master of the cliché-heavy post-race interview and is now looking to woo corporate sponsors so he can start training in a full-size stockcar. There’s Annabeth, a girly-girl at school and a monster on the track who’s starting to have second thoughts about whether being the next Danica Patrick is worth missing out on hanging out with her friends. And then there’s Brandon, the film’s most heartbreaking character, a talented hothead whose seemingly stable home life with his grandparents turns upside down when his absentee, ex-con father decides to move in.

As Josh, Brandon, and Annabeth travel around the country and work their way up the WKA standings, the competition gradually takes a backseat to real life and the bittersweet business of growing up. When young love blossoms between Annabeth and Brandon, Curry scores a lovely montage of the couple’s playful flirtations to Ryan Adams’ “My Winding Wheel,” resulting in one of the best romantic movie scenes in years.

It’s sad that there aren’t more scenes in Racing Dreams of kids being kids—while the parents are uniformly decent, hard-working people who are willing to support their children’s dreams to the point of financial insolvency, you never get the sense that racing go-karts is, you know, fun. The surprisingly thrilling racing scenes might make you wish you were still 12 years old, but the clear-eyed depiction of kids forced to become miniature grown-ups before they even enter puberty will send you scurrying back to the relative ease of adulthood.
Grade: A-