Although The Turning Point is largely remembered for its ballet sequences, the heart of this incredibly depressing story has little to do with dance. It focuses on two generations of dancers. The older set lives with chronic anguish over pivotal decisions in their past. The younger dancers have not yet made those mistakes, but we’re left with the impression that they will soon face the same decisions as their parents and likely suffer the same long-term, deep-seated regrets. It’s not a happy story, but it packs a hard emotional punch that anyone who understands regret can relate to.

The story focuses on the Rodgers family of Oklahoma City. Deedee (Shirley MacLaine) and Wayne (Tom Skerritt) were once highly regarded dancers for the American Ballet Company. They gave up the life when Deedee got pregnant, and they settled down to start a family. They’ve raised their children with a love of dance, and eldest daughter Emilia (Leslie Browne) wants to go pro. When the company tours Oklahoma City, Emilia auditions and makes it — with a little help from her godmother, Emma (Anne Bancroft). Emma lives the life Deedee could have had and secretly wants, and it’s caused a rift in their friendship. Their scenes together are fraught with unspoken tension as they pay each other compliments — not the sort of obnoxious, backhanded compliments one might expect from a lesser film. They both mean what they say, and what they say sounds nice, but neither one seems terribly happy about having to see each other long enough to pay compliments.

Of course, they end up seeing a lot more of each other. Deedee accompanies Emilia to New York to train for the company. She has the twin pain of watching her daughter repeat many of her own past mistakes and developing the talent Deedee let atrophy. Adding salt to these wounds is Emilia’s increasingly close bond with Emma, who clearly wants to make up for pursuing the solitary life of a dancer instead of settling down and having a daughter of her own. As Emilia starts to lose her wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked innocence in the bitter world of New York ballet, Deedee’s isolation grows, and she starts to make more regrettable mistakes. Watching these relationships deepen and change is the film’s most rewarding aspect.

Another major strength of The Turning Point is its emphasis on the hard work and struggle involved in artistic success. Recent fare like the remake of Fame and the hit TV series Glee suggest that people blessed with natural talent don’t need to put forth any effort. This film recognizes the reality that those with natural talent need to work their asses off to avoid stagnating. Rehearsals are a grueling, frustrating slog, and not even the performances are rewarding. These dancers have an internal drive that prevents them from doing anything other than dance. The film subtly suggests that Deedee and Wayne settled down because they lacked this drive.

Director Herbert Ross made a career out of adapting successful stage plays with impressive cinematic flair. A former ballet dancer himself, Ross lingers lovingly on the dance sequences, almost to the detriment of the film. Well, that’s hard to say — personally, I’m not a big ballet fan, so the lengthy recital sequence felt interminable to me. I’d imagine a ballet fan would appreciate it more. In the sense that it reminds Deedee of what she gave up (as well as showing the dancers’ hard work paying off), I understand its necessity to the film. However, many of the dances feature men and women who don’t serve as major (or even minor) characters. Sliding in snippets of dialogue from earlier in the film to suggest the way these numbers fit with the theme, in addition to being fairly on-the-nose, doesn’t do much to make them work dramatically.

Nevertheless, the quality of the film surrounding the climactic recital makes it more than worth the effort, even for non-fans like myself. It’s not an upbeat film, but the elegiac tone and complexity of the characters make watching it a worthwhile experience.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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