Monday, January 28, 2008

How She Move

By Elise Nakhnikian

Unlike most of the heroes and heroines of dance-contest movies, Raya Green does not dream of becoming a dancer. In fact Raya (Rutina Wesley) doesn’t want to dance at all. Headed straight for med school, she wants to leave behind her impoverished, drug-plagued neighborhood and everything in it – including the tightly choreographed “stepping” that looks like a cross between ground-stomping, Savion Glover-style tap and hip-hop, with a little breakdance-style gymnastics thrown in.

But to get to med school, Raya first has to get back into the private high school she had to leave when her parents ran out of money. And the best way to do that, it seems, is to join one of the crews heading off to Detroit to compete for a $50,000 prize.

If that sounds like too much plot to know going into the movie, don’t worry: It’s all revealed in the first five minutes or so. As for the rest – well, I’m sure you’ve seen enough of these kinds of movies (Flashdance, Rize, Save the Last Dance…) to know Raya will win the big competition and get her guy. But movies in general, and formulaic movies in particular, are more about the journey than the destination, and How She Move takes us through some interesting and authentic-looking terrain on the way to the finish line.

A soulful beauty who was fresh out of Juilliard when the movie was made, Wesley portrays Raya’s emotional journey with power and depth. All coiled silence when she first arrives back home, she’s positively aglow in the final frame, bathing us in the benediction of a glorious grin. Wesley holds the screen effortlessly, even when she shares it with the dynamic dancers in her crew. Her compact, muscular body and sharp-planed face are both delicate enough to convey vulnerability and strong enough to look tough, and she explodes into action with compelling intensity when she dances.

Choreographed by Hihat, a New Yorker who has plotted the moves for other dance movies and many music videos, the dance sequences may be more “Hollywood” than the real thing (I wouldn’t know), but their drama is engrossing. The soundtrack, which includes tracks by Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes, is also strong.

TrĂ© Armstrong is impressive as Michelle, Raya’s former friend turned nemesis, but there are plenty of other talented dancer/actors in the cast-- nearly all from Toronto, where the movie was shot. Dwain Murphy, who holds his own as Raya’s would-be boyfriend and the head of the formerly all-male crew she joins, is apparently a star of Toronto’s step scene, and several local artists play teachers and other authority figures.

Toronto has doubled for various U.S. cities in plenty of movies before, but I never would have guessed it could reproduce the culture of our black underclass, for better and for worse. Though none of the locations in How She Move are named except Detroit, it is clearly set somewhere in the U.S., and it could easily pass for parts of northern New Jersey.

Judging by this film, our northern neighbor may be nearly as culturally diverse as the U.S. Just look at the people behind it: Director Ian Iqbal Rashid, a gay Muslim of Indian descent who grew up in Toronto, has made two shorts and one other feature film, all of them gay-themed, while screenwriter Annmarie Morais has previously written for Canadian television about immigrants and other Canadians of color.

Raya and her friends and crewmates are all children of struggling, striving Jamaican immigrants. Their parents sacrifice daily to make a better life for them, and they expect their children to work as hard as they do. The emphasis on academic achievement in Raya’s household is a refreshing departure from the usual contest-movie formula: Dancing is never Raya’s whole purpose or identity. Instead, it’s a path to self-discovery, a way to integrate her emotional and academic lives.

Rashid’s direction and Morais’ script are far from perfect. You can see most of the plot twists coming a mile off, some key conflicts are resolved far too neatly, and several bits, like one about a locket Raya’s sister gave her that turns up missing, are telegraphed way too far in advance. But Wesley’s charisma and the emotional authenticity of many of the scenes spice up the formula, making this more than just another Similac movie.

There’s often real artistry, too, in the way the filmmakers convey information. You learn a lot about Michelle’s contemptuous anger at society’s low expectations from the fact that she and her crew suit up in nursing assistant uniforms for one of their furious dances. The near-wordless scene where Raya’s father leaves her mother is played out with the same eloquent economy. Raya goes to each one in turn, hugging first her tenderly sad father, then her deeply wounded mother, who has retreated so far into herself that she can’t even hug back. It’s a poignant moment, much sadder than it would have if the three spouted the expository speeches that would have littered a lesser movie.

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