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'Undefeated' & 'First Position' Explore Challenges Of Youth

Two new documentaries arrive in Kansas City this week that look at how a young person's capability for moxie and dedication can be advantageous in two seemingly disparate fields: high school football and ballet.

Tackling the former is Undefeated, which won this year's Best Documentary Oscar for its unflinching yet poignant portrait of a football team at an underprivileged high school in Memphis. First Position follows six kids between 9 and 19 from five continents whose collective dream is to dance their best dance ever at the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world. 

Though both films hinge on a big final challenge, thus maintaining a built-in level of suspense, they're not just about football or ballet. Rather, their intent is to celebrate resilience in the face of incredible odds and what determination, focus and discipline ultimately teaches young people about winning and losing.

Undefeated has a remarkable hero at its center: Coach Bill Courtney, whose paternal heart is as big as his stomach. Though Courtney is white and his entire team African-American, one is certain that their racial differences are less relevant - if they ever come up at all -  than their economic ones, which are profound. Manassas High School is in a blighted northern section of Memphis, where dreams are more about getting out than winning any one game. And when the news comes about the various players' post-high school plans, its accompanied by a flood of earned tears both on screen and in the audience.

The stories within the high-brow world of the young dancers in First Position may be less moving than those in Undefeated, yet the stakes are also high: the youngest kids are competing for ballet school scholarships and the oldest for positions in various renowned ballet companies. Director Bess Kargman's achievement here is to introduce us to an extraordinarily talented group of kids whose expensive pursuits all come down to a five minute display of beautiful artistry - and yet still remain kids.



Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.