Formula, formula, formula. You name the subject, and the movies can fit it into a formula. Paramount Vantage's 2007 release "How She Move" may be about step-dancing and it may feature a mostly black cast, but it could just as easily be about football, baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, boxing, wrestling, running, cheerleading, waltzing, spelling, debating, martial arts, competitive drumming, or tiddly winks. Motion pictures have covered far more fields than these and in much the same way. Aside from using some African-American dialect in its title, "How She Move" has little new going for it beyond a boatload of energy and enthusiasm. And pure formula.
What's "step dancing"? In this film, to me it looks like a cross between break dancing and tapping (or stomping), done to hip-hop music. But what do I know. Wikipedia describes step dancing as "the generic term for dance styles where the footwork is the most important part of the dance. Body and arm movements and styling are either restricted or considered irrelevant.... There are very few pure step dances, as most include at least some upper body or arm styling. The tradition includes Irish step dance, possibly the best known form of step dance, often marked by rigidly held upper body.... Another form of step dancing, Stepping, has been popularized by the National Pan-Hellenic Council. This step dance has African roots and is an African-American tradition as well as a part of Black history."
From this description, you can guess what the movie is about and where it's heading. It's got to have a young person struggling to get along and get ahead in the world and succeeding in the area of his or her choice, in this case step dancing. In "How She Move," the young person is Raya Green (Rutina Wesley), a teen from the ghetto whose Jamaican parents send her to an exclusive private boarding school to get her away from a bad environment and prepare for a career in medicine. But when their other daughter, Pam, gets involved in drugs, the parents wind up spending all of their money trying to rehabilitate her. The money runs out and Pam dies simultaneously, meaning Raya must return home.
I mean what's a poor young person to do in this case? Why, either get a scholarship, because she's quite smart, or join a dance team and win a big dance contest, of course. I think Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland played in this same movie about sixty years ago. One of Raya's oldest friends, Bishop (Duane Murphy), and Bishop's brainy little brother Quake (Brennan Gademans) head up a step-dance crew and reluctantly let Raya join them. Then there's this big Step-Dance Monster Competition in Detroit that pays $50,000 to the winners, and, well, you see it all coming.
Along the way, there are the rival girlfriend, the petulant Michelle (Tre Armstrong), and the rival dance-crew leader and local drug dealer, the villainous Garvey (Cle Bennet), to contend with. Moreover, Raya lives in a neighborhood where everybody looks like they'd just as soon slit your throat as say hello. Life is tough.
If the movie offered anything new or innovative, it might be different, but no such luck. For instance, does it have a theme or message to catch our attention? The filmmakers say on one of the featurettes that it's all about coming of age and finding one's voice and one's place in life. Fair enough, if we hadn't heard the same points made in every inspirational sports and genre movie ever made. Are the characters at all interesting? Nope, they're largely stereotypes. Is the story line different or imaginative? Sorry, we can see every plot development coming fifteen or twenty minutes before it happens. And it's not like this is an epic, a blockbuster, or a period piece where the settings, costumes, or special effects might worth our attention. Rather, the filmmakers have created an intentionally drab-looking movie.
So, what does the film offer? As I said earlier, it has enthusiasm (the young actors give it their all), energy, dance, and music. Keyshia Cole and DeRay Davis make guest appearances as themselves, and Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, and Lil' Mama," among others, provide the tunes. If any of these elements appeal to you, you're in. If not, the movie may be as long a haul for you as it was for me.
Oddity notes: (1) Bishop and his dance crew practice at all hours of the day and evening in the high school's auto shop, often dancing on the cars themselves and, at least in the evenings, without apparent supervision. I don't think so. (2) A school administrator tells Raya that sixty-five percent of their students go on to higher education. That a pretty high rate these days, yet about the only students we see in the film are drug addicts, lowlifes, and mean-spirited losers who probably couldn't even spell "college." (3) Every classroom and hallway in Raya's school is spotlessly clean; not even the smallest piece of paper on the floor. It's not like any of the schools I ever taught in. (4) Quake reads Tolstoy, and he looks down on students who are merely reading Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" or Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca." I'm not sure if the filmmakers were trying to make Quake seem like an ill-informed snob ("A little learning is a dangerous thing") or if they didn't realize that many literary critics consider "Salesman" the best American play ever written and that Du Maurier was one of England's most-celebrated modern writers. (5) In this film whenever two students have a serious disagreement, they don't immediately fight it out with their fists; instead, they settle it by showing each other their dance moves, not trying to outpunch but to out-move one other, with the music coming out of nowhere. A different world, I guess.
Trivia note: "How She Move" has a curious setting. I thought as I watched the film that the location was somewhere in a lower-income black community in or near a large city, maybe New York, but the film never says exactly where. The characters mention Detroit as the place of the big dance contest, and the characters have to travel to get there. But travel from where? To compound the curiosity, the filmmakers shot the movie in Canada, Toronto primarily and Hamilton. Well, it seems like moviemakers shoot a lot of films in Canada these days, with Canadian cities filling in for American ones. I suppose it doesn't matter.
When a filmmaker decides purposely to give his or her movie a specific kind of "look," it becomes more difficult to assess the video quality. In this instance, director Ian Iqbal Rashid ("Touch of Pink") decided upon a gritty, grainy, sometimes monochromatic look. The result is not pretty, but it does convey the harsh, pessimistic, often gloomy tone he was striving for. The video quality, therefore, appears a tad soft and a little fuzzy around the edges, the darker scenes more than a bit murky.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack delivers up a wide stereo spread and an impressive dynamic range to convey the movie's music with authority. There is not a lot of activity in the surrounds, however, beyond some ambient bloom in the musical numbers. In addition, we find a huge, overblown bass line that shakes the rafters but won't win any accolades from audiophiles.
The primary extras are three featurettes. The first is "The Characters of How She Move," thirteen minutes, wherein the actors tell us about their roles in the film and how they approached playing them. The second is "How She Move: From Rehearsal to Film," eight minutes, wherein the actors comment on making the film. And the third featurette is "How She Move: Telling Her Story," ten minutes, wherein the filmmakers talk about the meaning and importance of the film. Things wrap up with thirteen scene selections but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; previews of several other Paramount releases, some of them shown at start-up as well; and English and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
How you react to "How She Move" may depend upon how well you like the film's music and dancing, which is about all there is to it beyond the clichés. The actors give it their best shot, to be sure, but the movie is really about the moves. If you enjoy this sort of thing, you'll enjoy the picture. If you don't, there's not much reason to be here.