Danny lives in a working class Northern English neighborhood in a topsy-turvy world, where the most masculine, competitive sport a boy can play is… ballet.
But Danny doesn’t want to do pirouettes or gravity-defying leaps and turns. His heart is drawn to soccer, which only girls play.
Yet his stern, forceful father forces him to join the local competitive ballet troupe, dead set on his boy becoming a man the right way (as defined by this society.) But Danny can’t help but want to play his sister’s game, putting him in conflict with his domineering parent.
Writer-director Alex Forbes, along with producer Jack Pollington, have crafted a gently eccentric exploration of masculinity, gender expectations and staying true to one’s self, despite disapproval — one that takes an amusing premise and plays it for genuine emotion to fascinating results.
Its premise of an inverse world is subtly introduced and built in the extended opening sequence, featuring the father watching a competition on the telly and yelling passionately at the screen as his boy tries on some soccer equipment in a bedroom. But then it’s time for him to go to practice, and it’s not until the end of the opening that the camera pans to reveal the “punchline”: the competition is boys’ ballet, complete with intense commentary and loud raucous crowd noise and practice is in a ballet studio.
Normally this gender reversal is played for broad comedy, but the film takes a different tack, playing Danny’s story with earnest seriousness. The visuals are shot like a British naturalistic drama, with gritty textures, faded colors and loose doc-style camerawork in parts, and the performances follow the tone set by the visuals.
Actors Bradley Mayfield and Tom Tunstall plays father and son respectively with intensity and genuine emotion, and the fear and defiance Danny feels in the face of his father’s bullying is achingly sincere.
As the film proceeds and goes deeper into Danny’s emotional journey, the initially amusing premise becomes a fascinating springboard for inquiry: why are certain pursuits for boys and some for girls? How do parents project perhaps their own unfulfilled wishes and dreams onto their offspring? And how can a child find the strength of purpose to defy societal programming and parental expectation? And how does a boy become a man?
If “Ballerino” were a feel-good comedy, the answers would be easy. But this expectations-defying short is much more nuanced, serious and, in the end, sadly disquieting.