Friday, January 25, 2008

"How She Move" -- * * *

Someone like me probably wasn't on the target-demo list for a movie with lines of dialogue like "Maybe y'all been laxin' it, but my shit is always tight." And I'll admit, it's hard for me to give a shit about "steppin,'" that newfangled dance craze that's so popular with the yung'ns in urban areas (or at least that's what the movies tell me). But though I approached the latest movie within this genre, the Caribbean-Canadian Sundance acquisition "How She Move," with trepidation, by the half-hour mark, it had won me over. Much to my surprise, I did give a shit. I was invested in these characters and wanted oh-so-badly for their steppin' to go a'ight.

"How She Move," simply enough, follows Raya (Rutina Wesley), an especially smart inner-city girl, as she strives to make it to a national step-dancing competition with an all-male neighborhood dancing crew. She loves to dance, yes, but in a refreshing turn, her lofty aspirations are driven by her need for the prize-money to gain the private-school tuition (and subsequent enrollment at Johns Hopkins med school) her working-class Jamaican parents (Conrad Coates and Melanie Nicholls-King) can't afford. You see, before her drug-addict sister Pam died, her addiction divested the family of the money intended for Raya's education. Tossed into the mix are an evolving rivalry-turned-friendship with Michele (Tre Armstrong), a platonic thing with geeky, Tolstoy-loving dance partner (Brennan Gademans), romance with Bishop (Dwain Murphy) and a shaky allegiance between Raya and Pam's drug enabler.

The work of a young director (Ian Iqbal Rashid) and screenwriter (Annmarie Morais) , and filmed with an effective grittiness that seems to have bled out most color, "How She Move' has many of the typical contrivances one would expect within the rise-up-and-succeed, as well as the dance-off, genre, but they're balanced by things usually absent from this sort of thing, namely emotional resonance, character development, chemistry between actors, and the feeling that we're watching real people. For every "No she di'int!" moment (a rival group steals Raya's group's routine, calling to mind 'spirit fingers') or unnecessary melodrama (the drug dealer character seems perhaps too much a human embodiment of Satan), there's recognizable human interactions and effective moments of emotion and levity.

However, I'm not going to pretend that this isn't chiefly a step-dancing movie. There are dance sequences to spare here, and they're equal opportunity stimulators, featuring both muscular tank-topped men and girls in gold half-tees and ultratight, booty-enhancing jeans. But distracting physical attributes aside, these sequences (choreographed by Hi-Hat) are enormously enjoyable to watch, offering careful precision, grace and genuine wit. There are more than a few moments where dance sequences are featured for no other reason than they're entertaining, and I didn't mind a bit. And again, I'm someone who doesn't care about dancing.

For a type of film not generally thought of as being a showcase for acting, there are a surprising number of good performances on display in "How She Move."I would assume (though my assumptions often aren't worth shit) that Wesley's performance here will be looked back upon as a star-making one, as she makes Raya a complex character with her largely physical performance that emphasizes body language and silent communications as much as dancing. Armstrong also fills what could have been a one-note, stock role with evolving understanding and depth. But best of all is Nicholls-King as Raya's mother, doing wonders with her limited screentime. Still grieving for her older daughter and determined to not see her younger one go down the same track with the same aimless crowd, she delivers heartbreaking poignance in every scene she's in, providing more depth to the character than initially meets the eye.

In all honesty, based on its marketing, "How She Move" is probably not a movie I would have seen had I not attended a press screening, but I'm certainly glad that I did. Though offering some general familiarity and occasionally choppy pacing, the positives are plentiful enough to make it a worthwhile trip to theater. Infusing a none-too-respected genre of film with well-defined characters and an actual filmmaking sensibility (not to mention those hella cool dance sequences), it should equally appeal to those who ate up "Stomp the Yard," "Save the Last Dance" and "8 Mile," as well as the disinterested cynics like me, as long as they're willing to give a dancing movie a chance.


Anonymous Silencio said...

It's nice to see a critic loosen up and enjoy a movie that doesn't care about oscars.

11:04 AM  

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