“Youth Zooms by in Spectacularly Rich Racing Dreams”

by Michelle Orange

A lot of hyperbole gets jacked up and spun around in the opening scenes of Racing Dreams, Marshall Curry’s wonderful and wonderfully surprising documentary about the junior NASCAR set. Three youngsters, we are informed in the hammy voice-over that accompanies a rock-and-roll montage of candy-colored cars streaking around a track, are about to embark on the year that will determine whether they’ve “got what it takes” to “make it” as race-car drivers. To “go the distance,” if you will. Vrrrrrrooooozzzzzzzz.

As an opener it has all the flavor and freshness of an ESPN interstitial, and the New York screening audience I saw the film with deflated accordingly. When one of its young subjects, a comically sober 11-year-old named Josh Hobson, declared that being a NASCAR driver is “the greatest job you could ever have,” a buzz of condescension further thickened the atmosphere. Marshall Curry, the Oscar-nominated director of Street Fight, also had some East Coast ideas about the sport, the first being: a sport, you say?

The difference between Curry and an impatient roomful of critics is that he took several years out of his life to reckon with those ideas, and the result is a spectacularly rich, fully realized portrait of youth on the point of adolescence, and ambition in the face of desperate odds. At the end of the film’s 93 minutes Curry could have invited me to a frog-sexing competition and I’d have happily signed on.

In addition to Josh Hobson, Curry follows Annabeth Barnes, a rangy 11-year-old and the rare female aspiring driver, and Brandon Warren, a 13-year-old pocket McQueen with a tough home life and a need for speed. You may not have known that a Little League for race-car drivers exists; you will probably also not find that to be a happy idea. Curry’s biggest challenge — tied to that corny, amped-up opening — is negotiating the whoa, cool factor constructed around the image of pre-teens racing vehicles at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour. Although there is one crash, no one was seriously hurt during filming (that we know of), but the recklessness of the enterprise is chalked up to the culture surrounding it; hop on or wuss out. If nothing else the racing scenes — which look terrific, crisp and colorful, like the rest of the film — will help the childless get in touch with their inner hysterical mother.

The title is surely a nod to the seminal Hoop Dreams, and Curry adopts a compressed version of that film’s format as well. He develops some of the class and personal issues shaping each child’s quest to transition into stock cars at the age of 12. (Which is apparently legal; who knew?) Unlike basketball hopefuls, NASCAR wanna-bes have no scholarships to support them — they seek to score sponsors, a pursuit Josh cottoned to early on. It’s a little eerie to watch him gladhand after winning a race, dutifully thanking his kart’s manufacturer and offering his co-racers a hearty “Good job!” in the same tones of the announcer in his favorite NASCAR video game.

Brandon is looser and far more antic. “Do you think that girl is pretty?” he asks Josh at one of the races where these disparately located kids develop a rapport. He is referring to Annabeth, but he’s sniffing at the wrong tires. “I don’t know. She’s a good driver, though,” Josh replies, driving to the heart of this moment in his life, and his lack of interest in absolutely anything that does not involve racing. A shot of his face almost trembling with pleasure and wonder as he revs the engine of a prospective stock car (his dreams are costing his parents dearly, thousands of dollars a race) suggests just how many impulses this 4’10” phenom is sublimating into the urge to race and to win.

Brandon does think she’s pretty, in case you wanted to pass it on, and Curry’s attention — alert and intimate without feeling intrusive; outside of the opening voice-over and subsequent race announcing there is no narration — to the puppy love that takes hold between them is one of several personal and deeply poignant threads that he uses to complicate and enrich a familiar and increasingly rigid structure. Brandon’s relationship with his family — particularly an ex-con father who drifts in and out — and Annabeth’s flagging interest in giving up sleepover weekends for yet another race dramatize but also humanize the lead-up to the moment that will supposedly make or break their careers. They all speak openly about racing as a form of escape, and there’s something both precisely right and terribly melancholy about a child using the language adults tend to attach to their dysfunctions. It’s a peculiarly American phenomenon, this pressure to set your winning course in life before you have even put away your toys, and while Curry doesn’t seem as aware of that oddity as I would have liked, he’s aware enough.

Slick without feeling over-determined, Racing Dreams evokes — just as, oddly enough, Toy Story 3 does — the more general feeling of childhood on the precipice. I still don’t think being a NASCAR driver is the greatest job in the world; I can’t even say that I developed a new perspective on racing, or became gravely invested in the outcome of each race. I came to care about those kids, though, very much indeed. I wanted whatever dreams they had — whether they involved first-place trophies or first kisses — to come as true as they possibly could.