Pleasant is an underrated value in moviegoing, and pleasant is a word that describes director Sue Bourne's look at the world of amateur Irish dance competition in spades. "Familiar" is another adjective that applies—this is yet another documentary in the tradition of Spellbound, Wordplay, Mad Hot Ballroom et al where an annual competition and the inherent drama it provides are the primary (or in this case virtually the sole) dramatic engine. It isn't enough really—certainly not to move this film beyond the small coterie of dance devotees who will watch virtually anything with footwork in it—and it's hard to see much of an audience for this film as a general release. In a world where Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance? provide essentially the same service with more immediacy and a much wider visual and choreographic palette week after week, this niche is a saturated one. But Jig has its moments, and should appeal to a core constituency as well as channel surfers who stumble onto it online or via cable TV.
Bourne's thesis is that Irish dancing (thankfully never called the "jig" by anyone in this movie) has become a kind of lingua franca extending far beyond the Emerald Isle. She tracks a few core personalities in the Irish dance Diaspora, including two 10-year-old girls who are as different as night and day: Julia O'Rourke, a high-strung and privileged American with a stereotypical Asian "tiger mom;" and Brogan McCay, an extraordinarily sweet blue collar Irish girl who is the reigning champion in their shared category. Some game but rather obviously ill-trained Russian dancers are on hand for what would have been comic relief in a movie by a less gracious and nurturing director. Sandun, a Sri Lankan boy adopted by Dutch parents, is a kind of walking emblem of what Bourne sees as the multi-cultural state of the Irish dancing arts.
The dramatic core of the movie is the competition between O'Rourke and McCay, and the story of truly adorable dance prodigy John Whitehurst, a 10-year-old British boy who totes stuffed animals with him to the World Championship and seems more preoccupied with honoring his friendships with his brilliant coach and his teammate than with the stresses of competition. Bourne seems especially good at talking to kids—the McCay and Whitehurst interviews stand out for their warmth and naturalness.
On the other hand, a film like this rises and falls on our interest in the stories behind the stories, and Bourne seems reticent to dig into the darker aspects we sense in the margins. In more than one instance, parental obsessions seem to be working themselves out through these hard-working children. Yet the parents all uniformly speak of selflessness and the great expense involved with international competition, and the children all cheerfully claim they're glad to sacrifice their childhoods to the Lord of the Dance. O'Rourke's mom in particular projects a controlled ferocity that screams of vicarious living—her seated pantomime of every movement as she watches her daughter's competition dances is something every kid ever coached by his or her own obsessed parent will recognize with rue. But with the exception of a single, heart-breaking scene where a dance coach screams at a child, Bourne never delves into the personal details far enough for us to do more than glimpse how deeper psychological needs are being played out and fulfilled.
Photographically this is a frequently handsome film, with the critical caveat that the competitions themselves are often confusingly visualized—all feet, few faces, almost no full body shots, and with lengthy "results" recitation sequences that rely on the audience to understand which dancer goes with which competition number, something this viewer was frustratingly unable to do. Bourne makes no attempt whatsoever to educate the audience about what constitutes a truly great Irish dance as opposed to a mediocre one, giving those of us who aren't Michael Flatley few tools to gauge the drama as it unfolds before our eyes; the sole comments in this area are about evaluation being mysterious and highly subjective, an undercutting of narrative tension if ever there was one.
Even more critically, Bourne's laudable commitment to multiculturalism causes her to completely elide any discussion of the ethnic roots of Irish dance—why its elaborate conventions of costume and posture exist; what it expresses both about Irishness specifically and the human condition in general. Imagine a documentary about Shakespeare's sonnets that fails to discuss meter or to mention that they're poems and you have some idea of the scale of the omission.
And yet for all these very real flaws, the engaging personalities of the dancers, the inherent beauty of fluid young bodies in impossible and intricate motion, and the inevitable rooting interests that take hold all make Jig a worthwhile viewing experience. We can wish for a deeper and more complex vision of the world we've been invited into, but its surface is a mostly gleaming and joyous one. It's more than enough.
Distributor: Screen Media
Director/Producer: Sue Bourne
Running Time: 93 min.
Release Date: June 17 ltd.