30 January 2008

A MIDWINTER SURPRISE

Maybe I'm just desperate for any port in a storm, but I actually enjoyed How She Move, the latest in the usually benighted urban dance genre. This is, after all, the filmmaking tradition that gave the world masterpieces from Breakin' to Step Up, and precious damn little in between that didn't hit about that same level of quality. Now, I'm not going to say something completely silly, like claiming that How She Move is a hidden gem in the January landscape destined to be remembered decades hence, but taken on its own terms, it's a perfectly respectable bit of entertainment, that doesn't really do any more than it needs to in order to succeed; but it does do at least that, which is more than you can say for plenty of movies, and even though the script is just as anonymous as anything, the film does the right things well enough that it's a satisfying, if hardly earth-shattering experience.

By "the right things," I pretty much mean "the dance sequences." I mean, it's a dance movie. As a wise man once said, "Wallace Beery. Wrestling picture. What do you need, a roadmap?" Meaning, give your dance movie really good dance scenes, and the rest will follow. And in How She Move, the dance scenes are indeed really good. As choreographed by Hi-Hat (which I expect is likely a professional name), these dances show off the durability and fluidity of the human body while at the same time indulging in stylised sexuality. Of course, all dancing is at least somewhat about both of these things, and stepping is particularly meant to focus on the movement of the lower half of body, so it's not necessarily an act of formal radicalism that we see here, but as far as movies go, stepping has never been treated all that well, typically being glossed-up and broken into simple moves that aren't terribly difficult and therefore not terribly interesting to watch, and which are then sliced to ribbons in the editing room.

So perhaps I'm not actually trying to praise Hi-Hat, but rather the film's director, Ian Iqbal Rashid. As far as I can tell, this kind of project is like nothing else in his career (his first feature was 2004's Touch of Pink, in which a gay Muslim took advice from the ghost of Cary Grant, played by Kyle MacLachlan; a film that I have not seen, because it cannot possibly be awesome enough to live up to that setup), but he takes to it well, filming the dance sequences with a restraint that makes them look - gasp! - like teenagers dancing in an empty garage! And not like buffed actors on a soundstage. It was Fred Astaire who insisted that any proper dance number should consist of the longest possible takes and always frame the dancers at a distance where you could see them from feet to head, and while there are many counter-examples to that rule, it can still be very useful, as Rashid proves by following it about half of the time, always to good effect. In the instances where he doesn't, it's usually to spend time focusing on the dancers' bodies, the way their feet move or the ways that subtleties of expression affect the dance. Beyond this, the film is broken into two modes, polished and gritty, and the distinction between the two is entirely a matter of whether the film is at that moment showing the squalid lives of the characters rehearsing in industrial spaces, or the fleeting moments where they find pride and meaning in dancing for an audience. It's a simple idea executed flawlessly. In fact, Rashid's only misstep is in the very first number of the film, cutting between video of the protagonist as a child and her warm-up routines in the present. It's too self-conscious, especially compared to the rest of the dances.

Besides well-staged dances, How She Move benefits greatly from the exceptionally appealing actress playing the "she" of the title. Rutina Wesley makes her film debut (and as far as I can tell, her professional debut) as Raya, a high school senior with a fairly standard set of movie issues: her older sister died a few years ago of what is strongly implied to be a heroin overdose, leaving Raya with a fear of disappointing her parents, and a more existential fear about the cheap value of life in her neighborhood. Thus she focuses all her energy on getting the money for a private school where she hopes to study medicine. Along the way she is forced to confront the faces from her past and see the value in a culture that she has devoted years of her life to leaving behind. Also, she has to become the only woman in a male step team in order to win $50,000 at the big step show in Detroit, but that part was pretty well obvious right around the time I said "dance genre" in the first paragraph.

There's a whole lot of boilerplate there, but somehow it's boilerplate that works, and I truly do believe that Wesley has the most to do with that. As one would expect, she's a great dancer, along with most of the cast; but she manages to make the ordinarily deadly moments in between dances sparkle with a characterisation that is both prickly and warm, elitist and humble. She is not asked to negotiate and particularly tricky corners - the character is forced through exactly the growing experiences you would predict, in exactly the same order - but she makes Raya interesting and real despite the bland script.

I don't want to oversell the thing. It's not a great movie, but it's close to a great entertainment, all things considered. It's familiar, which might be its single greatest flaw; the other great flaw is that it's much too shallow a look at the culture in which Raya's story unfolds: as near as I can tell, it's set entirely within the Jamaican immigrant community of Toronto, but that's not an easy thing to figure out, and a lot of dots have to be connected by the viewer that oughtn't. And even then, a lot more remains unexplored.

Still, when I sat down to watch a film about step dancing, I would never have expected that my harshest complaints would be about its insufficiently rigorous sociological model.

7/10

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Oddly, this is one of the few dance movies I had no interest in seeing. Maybe I should reconsider? I very much enjoyed the dancing in Step Up (even though there was a bizarre in-unison hip hop line dance thing in the middle), but the story bordered on painful. It clearly tried to recycle everything that worked from the last decently competent dance movie I saw (Save the Last Dance, which was actually on the recommendation of one of my dance professors at NU).

And as for Touch of Pink, I'm sure it's not as awesome as you want it to be, but it's quite cute.