Kids in competition is almost always documentary gold, and this chronicle of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest – which I didn’t even know existed, and which the UK (and Ireland) weren’t in the year this was made – is almost up there with SPELLBOUND as a chronicle of inspiration, eccentricity, heartbreak and cruelty, with the added appeal of variety acts even John Waters might find tasteless. Flicking through the contestants, tactful and sympathetic director Jamie J Johnson homes in on four of many kids: Laurens, lanky fifteen-year-old drummer of a Belgian group (Trust), who is clued-in enough to flourish a Spinal Tap DVD knowingly at the film crew and shrugs off the fact that the Dutch venue won’t let him do his signature basmati-rice-on-the-drumskins bit; Marina, a Bulgarian rich kid who identifies fiercely with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, maybe because she’s in the same family situation – abandoned by a rarely-seen father she hopes will care enough to watch the contest and realise what he’s walked away from (NB: he doesn’t); Mariam, a sweetly somber Georgian national heroine – her family crowd into a derelict-seeming hall with faces painted in the national colours to watch the contest on a TV set with rabbit-ear antenna and dodgy reception — who hopes a high place in the contest will make Georgia more famous internationally; and Giorgios, a tiny Cypriot singer who blanks completely when an adult interviewer jokes that he’ll probably get a high vote from Greece, because he hasn’t yet realised how Eurovision horse-trading works, and whose tiny sister strikes up a relationship with the gruesome-seeming tubby Portuguese kid in white tie and tails.
It’s surreally strange to see kids being honestly patriotic, though some contestants seem to be on more personal quests. Johnson makes an unusual start at the Belgian national contest, where Trust unexpectedly best Bab, a cute solo girl singer who is much more immediately appealing than the band but, of course, probably doesn’t need the embarrassment of this contest to hinder her career. We also see the Dalton Girls, first of several horrifyingly fascinating gimmick acts who pop up throughout. Then the film spends time with the principles on their home turf, showing but refraining from comment on their differing circumstances – Mariam, who lives in a concrete block apartment in a warzone, seems more balanced and secure than Marina, who is well-set up but channels bubblegum whimsy with a dark edge (part of the rigour of the contest is that the kids write their own material); Laurens enjoys his geek chic slot in school, whereas ten-year-old Giorgios admits he’s called gay for preferring singing over football. Then, the contest – heavily-tipped to win is an act from Ukraine which features a witchy girl who does a routine perhaps inspired by Guys and Dolls (or a dirty trick in Smile) which is essentially a striptease, until the contest organisers get a look at her midriff and insist on a wardrobe modification she finds mortifying and which scuppers her chances of winning.
One of Johnson’s merciful decisions is to blank out the actual songs after a while, and lay an operatic tenor doing ‘o sole mio’ over a montage of the garish, bizarre, spectacular and, in all probability, horrible musical acts. You want to hug all these kids and tell them it’ll be all right – except that girl from the Ukraine, who is frankly terrifying.