In most cases, the description “family-friendly film” has sent us packing. But to our surprise and delight, Marshall Curry’s documentary Racing Dreams has repeatedly impressed audiences and press, as well as the Tribeca jury who awarded it Best Documentary Feature last night. This being Curry’s return to Tribeca after his Academy Award-nominated (and Tribeca Audience Award-winning) documentary Street Fight, it shouldn’t be a shock Racing Dreams is also the frontrunner to take home the coveted $25,000 Heineken Audience Award.
As the film begins, you’ll notice something — 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,” as LA Times’ Scott Feinberg so aptly points out. The film succinctly follows the story of tweens Brandon Warren (the wild child), Josh Hobson (self-proclaimed perfectionist), and Annabeth Barnes (talented daughter of a retired race car driver) competing in the year long World Karting Association Championship series, otherwise known as the “NASCAR Little League.”
Curry beautifully balances viewers’ affections for each of the kids. Josh provides endless laughs through mimicking his racing idols. He also fascinates and startles with his astute understanding of the sponsorship model, studying the likes of Jeff Gordon making camera-ready thank you speeches at such a young age. We wince at picturing him also one day on a podium thanking tobacco companies for their support! As with any wild child, Brandon intoxicates — whether it be rough-housing with Grandpa, rapping lyrics well beyond his years, or remaining stoic amidst a potential future in a military academy to take care of his temper. Annabeth’s coming of age may be the most visually evident, bringing us back to memories of first crushes, the desire to be the first-female-anything, and struggles to balance athletics with the emerging social calendars that come with adolescence. Face it, she’s a Janet Champ inspired Nike ad waiting to happen.
Although filled with substantial racing footage, the most compelling moments of the film surround the challenges of paving these children’s dreams, the pressures of deciding your fate at such a young age, and of course, the parents walking a fine line between parent and stage-mother- esque racing coach. “Racing is an addiction, and we’ve got it bad,” says Annabeth’s mother. Having dedicated the film to the late Paul Newman, Curry drew inspiration from the fact that “NASCAR is the second-most-popular spectator sport in America, and I knew absolutely nothing about it.” We wouldn’t be shocked if most New Yorkers found themselves in thinking similarly. Let me be the first to urge you to get over yourself and take in the possibility that NASCAR in this instance can be uplifting.
Filled with equal parts humor, struggle, and competitive drive – Racing Dreams has more than a strong shot at winning Tribeca’s audience prize.