A filmmaker would be hard-pressed to find someone less interested in NASCAR - or any type racing - than I am. But I was hooked by Marshall Curry's POV documentary "Racing Dreams," and amazed at the single-minded dedication of the young racers profiled, two of whom are from North Carolina.
"Racing Dreams," winner of the Best Documentary Feature award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, airs at 10 p.m. Thursday on UNC-TV and chronicles three extreme go-karting kids who, along with their families, share an all-consuming passion for racing. It's an engrossing - and somewhat heartbreaking - movie.
The film is centered on the yearlong pursuit for the World Karting Association's 2008 national title, a series of five races that take place each year around the country.
WKA racing is a steppingstone for kids who want to move on to NASCAR as a profession, and each kid in the film is at the do-or-die point: succeed and move forward, or choose a different path.
Much like "Hoop Dreams," the incredible 1994 documentary about two boys' basketball ambitions, Curry's ode to racing ends up being less about the sport itself and more about the kids as individuals and their struggles to come to terms with their dreams.
Given the strong presence of NASCAR in this state, it isn't surprising that two featured racers are from North Carolina. Eleven-year-old Annabeth Barnes is from Hiddenite, north of Charlotte; Brandon Warren, 13, is from Creedmoor, a Granville County town northwest of Durham. The third, Josh Hobson, 12, is from Flint, Mich.
Each kid has a compelling story, but Brandon feels like the heart and soul of the film. He has been raised by nurturing grandparents in a loving home since his mother took off when he was 4. His father has been in and out of prison for most of the kid's life.
Brandon can be brash and temperamental; a stubborn thrill-seeker who is quick to fight when cornered. But the film suggests that his tough exterior is a defense mechanism as his father drifts in and out of the boy's life, leaving him a little harder and a little more disillusioned by each encounter.
Racing is Brandon's escape from everything - from the trouble in school, the drama with his father, and the constant worry from those who love him that he may not stay on a straight path.
"When I come to a race, I don't even think about what's going on at home. Everything goes away, I don't think about anything except racing."
There's an unexpected vulnerability in Brandon that gives "Racing Dreams" much of its emotional weight.
But all of the kids are interesting. They're all good, smart kids with supportive families and a genuine love of all things racing. Annabeth is torn between the lure of her preteen girlfriends at school and the excitement of the male-dominated environment of the weekend racetrack, and Josh has a mesmerizing, almost savant-like grasp of what it takes to succeed as a professional racer.
It's a fascinating look at the sport from the perspective of kids - and hopeful families - who want to make racing not just a hobby, but a lifelong pursuit. Fascinating even for those who may not be all that interested in racing.