Sleepers to See: 'Senna'

While Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc at this weekend's box office, there were a couple of bright spots at the movies. On a budget of a mere $25 million, the blockbuster book-turned-film The Help remained number one for the third week in a row, and has nearly reached the $100 million mark.

And a movie you might not have heard of called Senna came in with the best per screen average with more than $8,000 per location.

What's surprising about the success of Senna, which has been expanding its release each weekend since its debut, is that it's far from a conventional commercial film. It's a documentary and its subject is Formula 1 race car driver Ayrton Senna, who's not exactly a household name outside sports circles or Senna's native Brazil.

More surprising is that the film will appeal to, well, just about every demographic. If you're looking for drama, heroics, good-natured humor, or pulse-pounding adventure, then this is a film you need to see.

Those who have passing knowledge of the story may already know its ultimate, tragic outcome. But it's the journey getting there, and getting to know Ayrton Senna as a racer, a real-life hero, and a compelling human being, that pays worthy dividends.

Compiled from countless hours of interview and race footage, viewers are drawn into a first-person account of the three-time world champion, as he battles on and off the circuit with former teammate/French champion Alain Prost, goes head-to-head with Formula 1's controversial politics in the late '80s, donates time and charity to his poverty-stricken country, and attempts to overcome challenges after switching teams in the early '90s.

That synopsis makes it sound like a standard tribute. But the film triumphs in its sincerity, and the sense of the person who comes across over and over again in the footage. Combine that with the "you are there" thrill of videos shot from the driver's vantage, and it's a winning formula.

As someone who knows very little about the sport, the film acts as a fascinating document about a figure who didn't fit my stereotypical notion of a hard-charging pro driver. Ayrton Senna looks like a movie star, and he's plenty confident, but his overall demeanor is that of a genuinely spiritual, reflective, honest individual. By the time the film ends, you're as deeply invested in him as you would be for a striking character in any movie, real or imagined.

Last week, a woman in L.A. bought 100 tickets for Senna, and offered them up for free to anybody interested in joining her at the theater. When I saw it, moviegoers applauded at the conclusion, stayed through the end credits, and applauded again. Sounds crazy? It might not after you've seen it. And if you have, comment below with your own thoughts.

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