Flexing, a form of street dance that originated in Brooklyn and has become increasingly popular in the past few years, thanks in part to YouTube, is certainly striking. Participants exhibit awe-inspiring flexibility as they skillfully contort their bodies to invigorating hip-hop rhythms in ways that often suggest an attempt to reassert a sense of humanity within deliberately machine-like movements. Perhaps that latter aspect is what draws East New York residents such as Jermaine “Flizzo” Clement and Jonathan “Jay Donn” George to embrace the art form, at least on an aesthetic level. But through exploring the personal backgrounds of some of these performers, Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols’s documentary Flex Is Kings makes clear that flexing is more than just a cool dance trend to Flizzo and Jay Donn; it’s a means of personal expression and possibly even their ticket out of their often dire lower-class lives. There’s plenty of material here for a multi-dimensional work of nonfiction, perhaps a character drama and dance film rich in sociological analysis. But if the end result suggests anything, it’s that the filmmakers seem to have assumed at the outset that the sheer novelty of flexing was inherently enough to carry the film and trusted that the human interest and sociological elements would take care of themselves.
Flizzo gets a sizable amount of screen time throughout, and he easily commands attention with his passion and sincerity; he also has one of the more astonishing flexing maneuvers spotlighted in the film, a trick involving a bird that flies out of his mouth. But outside of his dance performances, for which he clearly pours a lot of his heart and soul, his personal life is documented as an over-familiar series of relationship woes, unemployment struggles, and professional desperation (dancing is what he loves best, and he’ll do it at any cost). As for Jay Donn, his arc is mostly upward in its trajectory: Early on, he’s tapped by a Brooklyn-based experimental dance troupe to play Pinocchio in an unconventional new adaptation of the Carlo Collodi story, and this golden opportunity takes him to Edinburgh, Scotland, where the work has its premiere. Good for Jay Donn, but the film spends so little time at the start establishing him as a distinctive subject that these positive developments don’t resonate in the end beyond standard-issue uplift. Frankly, outside of their passion for flexing, these individuals, as unfortunate as their personal circumstances may be, simply aren’t compelling documentary subjects.
Putting aside the generic human interest, however, Flex Is Kings turns out to be shockingly deficient in its on-screen depiction of flexing. Anyone expecting even a sliver of the sustained aesthetic rapture of last year’s glorious Girl Walk // All Day—which featured its lead, Anne Marsen, doing some flexing of her own at certain points—will be disappointed by the way the filmmakers generally cut flex routines down to flashy high-point montages, without much breathing room to allow the audience to bask in the thrilling physicality on display. Worse, the filmmakers Schoo and Nichols barely offer their audience any illuminating background on the dance form itself. One scene comes close to explaining its appeal to these struggling Brooklynites: a rehearsal scene in which a choreographer ties some of his dance moves to gang violence he’s witnessed, a revealing moment that suggests the strong personal dimension that these performers bring to their routines. Mostly, though, Flex Is Kings is content to merely skim the surface of its subject, the end result being a film that, for all its good intentions, adds up to little more than yet another “triumph-of-the-human-spirit” homily.