The favelas of Brazil are a familiar screen subject, and one not readily associated with showbiz whimsy. But a Rio neighborhood's unlikely big top is front and center in the effectively straightforward "Without a Net." Kelly Richardson's debut film benefits from her considerable access to four young acrobats, each finding new purpose in the circus and envisioning a life beyond poverty.
Social activist Junior claimed an abandoned lot in the city's Praça Onze section to illegally set up a circus school, aiming to break the drugs-and-crime pattern for local kids. Focusing on two teen girls, a 9-year-old boy and a portly young man whose mother apparently has spent most of her life pregnant, Richardson shapes her observations into intimate portraits.
Although the material is organized somewhat confusingly in the opening stretches, and there are moments when more context would be useful, the film is incisive within its brief running time.
For the central quartet, members of a select troupe that performs for the public, the discipline of learning to tumble feeds a sense of possibility, while the spotlight embraces their individuality. It's no wonder that the circus' janitor watches them with envy, wishing he'd had such a chance before taking to crime at age 12.
Knowing firsthand the dangers of the streets, the kids are philosophical about the physical risks of trapeze and contortion. But as a postscript makes clear, Junior's worthy project is no sure antidote to hard knocks.
"Without a Net." No MPAA rating; in Portuguese with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour. At Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood.