The question of where Nascar racers come from has probably never crossed your mind, particularly if you’re from a big city like me and never grew up on the sport or really cared about it. But the answer is an amazing one, though obvious in retrospect- they honed their craft with the racing equivalent of Little Leagues.

There are entire leagues where children from 10-13 years old race karts, and while you may be laughing at the idea and thinking how cute it must be keep in mind that these particular karts can go up to 70 miles per hour. These are not child’s play, yet children zip around tracks in them only inches from the ground. This is real racing.

This documentary from Marshall Curry, director of the incredible Street Fight (about the fierce and corrupt 2002 mayoral race of Newark, NJ), follows three very different kids over a year during the most important race of all, the World Karting Association’s National Championship.

When you hear this concept you might worry that it’s like most other documentaries about kids doing grown-up things, full of the stories of insane parents that push their kids (and into future years of therapy). It’s not. In fact, it’s more a story of growing up. It’s about first relationships, of finding your way, of figuring out what you want to do for the rest of your life. It follows one of the most important years for any young person. It’s especially important for these racers, who at such a young age are trying to figure out if they want to make a career out of this.
The genius here is in how different each kid is. Josh is serious and business-minded already at the age of 12. He talks about how important connections are and has a room full of trophies from races won. He’s the kind of kid you want to slap and scream at to enjoy his childhood. He’s obviously gifted and a hard worker but at what cost? Still, you can tell that he will get far.

Annabeth is a rarity, a girl in a male-dominated sport. She’s hitting puberty and unsure if she really wants to continue racing. She’s girly and popular and her friends don’t really understand why she races, but she loves it and it’s in her blood as both her father and grandfather used to race. Her year is spent in both confusion and excitement, in that unique way that all preteens experience.

Brandon’s story is heartbreaking. He comes from a broken home with drunken, drug addict parents who basically abandoned him. He was taken in by his grandparents and it’s obvious that they love him and take care of him the best he can, but it’s obvious that the kid’s headed to dark places. He’s got too much anger in him, too much violence and mistrust from being left on his own. He’s quick to a fight but a sweet kid at heart, and it’s hard to watch him when you know that he easily could end up following his father’s path and end up in jail.

All three tell a story that’s familiar to every living person on this planet, a story of that harrowing age when everything seemed to hit you at once, when you didn’t know what to do or what the hell was going on with your body.

Along with that there are some truly exciting racing sequences, done with an excellent use of color to make sure you’re paying attention to the right karts. It all combines to make one of the greatest coming of age stories you’re likely to see, and another fantastic piece of work by Curry.

9.5 out of 10

(This review was based on a critic’s screening at Tribeca, where the film rightfully went home with the Best Documentary award.)