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Old story, new moves

MOVIE REVIEW

The dance-driven 'How She Move' puts a kinetic, fresh face on some familiar plot elements -- and the filmmakers showcase the steps, not the edits.

January 25, 2008|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

It sounds corny, but "How She Move" proves you can't judge a film by its plot line, even if it sounds suspiciously similar to a few other movies about stomping the yard and dreaming your dream and dancing like you mean it.

Since you asked: A bright young woman from a tough urban neighborhood is on the way to academic achievement at a tony private school. Her sister, an addict, overdoses and dies, which brings Raya back to the old, mean neighborhood, where her Jamaican immigrant parents struggle to eke out a living and keep their surviving daughter out of trouble.

To these parents, the local step competitions represent bad elements and trouble incarnate. Not to Raya (played by Rutina Wesley). She joins an all-male step troupe led by Bishop (Dwain Murphy), with whom Raya gets involved in more ways than choreographically. It all comes down to the big step competition in Detroit.

Screenwriter Annmarie Morais, herself a Jamaican immigrant, has a way of making the cliches seem new. Morais made a short documentary about coed step teams called "Steppin to It," and the warmup clearly paid off. She and director Ian Iqbal Rashid, who was born in Tanzania, are following some well-worn narrative paths, but the behavior in the film -- the affections and tensions between parents and children and between dance rivals -- feels urgent and convincing and alive.

Mainly it's a very solid dance picture, which is the point. Wesley's a rock-solid anchor to this story, in which the heroine (truly admirable, and not in a saintly way) strives to reconcile all the warring aspects of her young life. Wesley and her cohorts aren't impressive because editor Susan Maggi makes them look impressive. They're strong, distinctive movers and stompers, and the choreography by hip-hop veteran Hi-Hat finds surprising variations on basic, kinetic dance vocabulary derived largely from the South African "gumboot" tradition.

Blessedly, the rehearsal numbers (many take place in a car repair garage) and performance segments aren't sliced and diced in that zero-attention-span way so beloved by . . . I don't know, "the kids," allegedly. (Also, by one of my editors, who adores "Moulin Rouge.") In "How She Move," more so than in the usual contemporary dance-driven picture, we're able to learn what the performers have to offer. The filmmakers are clever enough to avoid the usual visual tics until the very end. (It must be contractual.)

By then you're in the mood to overlook such tricks. The film generates goodwill the old-fashioned way: It earns it.

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"How She Move." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some drug content, suggestive material and language. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. In general release.

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