There’s the germ of an intriguing concept in Beadie Finzi’s Brazil-set Only When I Dance: the way that, in the land of such culturally specific musical forms as samba and Tropicalismo rock, the film’s young hopefuls cling to the more European art of ballet as an escape from the poverty of their environment. However, that’s the kind of potentially provocative angle that goes unexplored in Finzi’s light, shallow documentary, where social issues play second fiddle to the crowd-pleasing narratives of its two teenage dreamers. Said dreamers are Irlan Santos da Silva and Isabela Coracy Alves, bright aspiring dancers who divide their time between Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and the ballet academy into which both have been accepted.
Encouraged by the school’s doting founder Mariza Estrella, they travel for auditions in Europe and the U.S., and their diverging trajectories are telling: Where Irlan dazzles judges with Nijinsky-inspired numbers, Isabela’s setbacks are revealed to have less to do with fumbled pirouettes than with her darker skin and fuller-than-classical figure. Finzi’s camera catches disarming human notes in the dancers’ supportive families, including moments when Isabela’s father scrambles to scrape together funds for his daughter’s trips and a society’s class divide stings the heart.
For the most part, unfortunately, the film seems to shyly drift away from the racial and social prejudices it comes across, determined not to have any dark cloud linger over its portrait of youthful pluckiness for too long. (Finzi’s refusal to examine Irlan’s bold, gender-challenging performances within the context of Brazil’s largely macho sexual politics is another missed opportunity.) Only When I Dance wants to present audiences with an emotive portrait of artistic hopes and societal barriers, but its genial superficiality will instead have them looking for the phone numbers so they can vote for their favorites.