“Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School” is a refreshing piece of emotional warmth that won’t induce a syrup overdose. Director Randall Miller has turned his 15-year-old short about girl-phobic boys going to a dance school in the 1960s into a series of flashback sequences for a modern story about loss and finding joy in life. Robert Carlyle stars as a Jake, who meets the boy character 40 years later, as a dying grown man (John Goodman). Jake finds the man when he sees a horrible accident while driving his bakery’s delivery truck. The man was on his way to the the Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School to meet a very old appointment with the girl he feared and connected with as a child. Jake talks to him to keep him conscious in and hopefully save his life.
The film skillfully weaves between Jake’s life after the accident as he goes to the dance school, him talking to Goodman’s character and the fleeting childhood memory. Goodman serves as the narrator of his back story and challenges Jake to correct the direction his life has taken.
Jake walks into the academy looking for the woman Goodman’s character was meeting, but doesn’t find her and instead feels drawn to go to more dance lessons. Soon they become a way for him to deal with the loss of his dead wife. This is refreshing therapy, since his dead-wife support group has offered little help beyond anger and depression. The group is a collection of comically scarred characters, including Sean Astin as a man who’s trying to get rid of his wife’s smell in his house and even covers his entire floor with baking soda.
The dance school is populated with a great cast, including Mary Steenburgen as Marilyn’s daughter, who rules the classroom with her three-decades-dead mom’s authority, but still says that she’s only filling in for her, Marisa Tomei a a potentially romantic character who faces overly protective abuse from the man who accompanies her to the lessons, played by Donnie Walberg as a absurdly slick dancer. While the ensemble may be too ideal, it has plenty of charm and an non-manipulative approach to emotional drama.