L.A. Times (The Envelope)

Tribeca Film Festival: Racing Dreams Zooms To Front of Pack
by Scott Feinberg

The strongest films to emerge from the seven Tribeca Film Festivals that preceded this year's have been documentaries. They have included Oscar nominee "Street Fight" (2005), Oscar nominee "Jesus Camp" (2006), Oscar winner "Taxi to the Dark Side" (2007) and Oscar winner "Man on Wire" (2008). Therefore, I probably shouldn't have been as surprised as I was to discover that the best film at this year's festival, thus far -- and indeed the best film of the year, thus far -- is "Racing Dreams," Marshall Curry's low-budget doc about three of the country's top go-kart racers.

"Racing Dreams" had its premiere, complete with all of its subjects and co-executive producer Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson seated in the theater and a NASCAR race car parked by the curb outside of it, at the School of Visual Arts on Saturday afternoon. Representatives from ESPN, Fox Searchlight, HBO, and Magnolia were in attendance, and based on the exuberant reception from audience members young and old -- including a standing ovation that lasted from the start of the credits to the finish -- I would be shocked if the film's distribution rights aren't secured by the end of the week and if it isn't among the five best-documentary Oscar nominees at the end of the year.

"Racing Dreams" inevitably calls to mind "Hoop Dreams" (1994), another terrific sports-related documentary that follows the ups and downs in the lives of a few promising young athletes as they pursue their dreams of making it to the pros. The truth, however, is that "Racing Dreams" had a somewhat tougher hurdle to scale: Basketball is rather self-explanatory and popular from coast to coast, but when it comes to racing, half the country (the "red states," generally speaking) can't get enough of it, and half the country (the "blue states") doesn't get it at all.

During the post-screening Q&A, Curry admitted that he fit the latter description before embarking on this project, but decided to do so anyway out of a burning desire to understand how something he found so unappealing managed to be the second-most-popular spectator sport in America. He wound up at an awards dinner for the World Karting Assn., the preeminent organization for young go-kart racers and a major stepping stone to the world of NASCAR. There, he interviewed dozens of kids but eventually identified three -- Brandon Warren, Josh Hobson, and Annabeth Barnes -- who "popped" out to him from the rest.

Having now seen the film, I can say that if film work ever dries up for Curry, he should consider a career in talent scouting, because it would have been impossible to select more charismatic or fascinating subjects than these kids and their families. None of them embody the cliches to which we have become accustomed -- the spoiled brat with a sense of entitlement, the wild-eyed parents trying to live out their unrealized dream through their kid, and the like. No, instead what we get are real people who are perhaps a little eccentric by normal standards but are all ultimately good, decent people who are genuinely trying to do the right thing.

The three story lines in "Racing Dreams" unfold and intersect more rivetingly than most original screenplays. This is partly because the underlying drama was really there, but also largely because Curry, Matthew Hamachek, and Mary Manhardt were skilled enough to find a way to tell those stories in 90 minutes out of an incomprehensible 500 hours of raw footage. The end result is a tight, fast-paced, engaging film that had people -- myself included -- tapping their feet in the aisles and laughing, smiling, and crying in their seats. Make no mistake about it: This one's an instant classic.