Chi Chi Mizrahi, left, and Twiggy Pucci Garçon in Kiki (Sundance Selects)

Sara Jordenö’s documentary explores the spirited subculture of drag balls in New York City. Voguing, as it’s called, is also the subject of the 1990 hit Paris Is Burning. That was more than 25 years ago, and, yeah, times have changed, but the world of voguing is still going strong in the heart of Manhattan.

The film introduces us to several of the “houses” involved in NYC ballroom competitions: the House of P.U.C.CI., House of Juicy Couture, and House of Unbothered Cartier. Each has a mother or father, although it’s clear from the beginning the gender lines are blurred. The houses might as well be called homes, as these dancers —black and Latino kids, teens up to the mid-twenties—find second families within the voguing community.

With so much visibility in the media these days and the strides that have been made for LGBTQ rights, it’s easy to believe there isn’t anything left to fight for. But according to Kiki, nothing could be further from the truth, especially for inner city, impoverished LGBTQ youth. After introducing its subjects, the film takes us through their daily struggles, whether it involves police harassment or getting heckled by a passerby. However hard their daily lives may be, these kids are committed to their houses and to the exaltation of dance. While the film features them getting their dance on (on the competition floor, in practice sessions, and just about whenever they feel like it), the core of Kiki is the stories of these young people—some transgender, some gay, all unique.

For every inspirational moment, the filmmakers pull us back to reality with harsh reminders of how tough life is for the dancers. While in Virginia, Christopher Waldorf visits his mother, who seems to have made peace with her son’s lifestyle. But his father does not appear in the film. Earlier Waldorf had told a story that as a child, he was given a dancing role by a teacher. After school he came home to show his father his moves, to which his father gave a cold, disapproving reaction that sent Waldorf running to his room. His mother then told him, “Don’t dance.”

For every somber moment—like hearing about how some of the kids have had to go into sex work to make ends meet or how most are no longer in contact with their families—the film is quick to give us something upbeat, such as the search for just the right pair of discount boots for a Mad Max outfit in the next competition.

Some might be dissuaded that Kiki is actually not the dancing competition film its marketing makes it out to be. After the first 30 minutes, the contest aspect falls away, and we go point-by-point through the dancers’ hardships and the importance of safe spaces, like the ballroom houses. But don’t be dissuaded by this: Kiki is compelling even without the allure of voguing to reel viewers in.

Directed by Sara Jordenö
Produced by Annika Rogell and Lori Cheatle
Released by Sundance Selects
USA/Sweden. 94 min. Not rated