"How She Move" goes through all the motions of your typical dance movie " and, to be more specific, a hip-hop dance movie " but offers enough unexpected tweaks to make it refreshing.
Our heroine, Raya Green (played by engaging newcomer Rutina Wesley), is indeed an underdog trying to transcend her upbringing in a poor section of Toronto, and winning a step dance competition will help her earn the money to get there.
But there's nothing meek about her: This is a strong young woman from the start, and Wesley's no-nonsense delivery provides disarming gravitas. She's just as serious about getting into an Ivy League school and becoming a doctor as she is about winning the annual Step Monster contest.
It helps a great deal that a woman, Annmarie Morais, wrote this (and it's only her American feature debut). You won't find any hos or hoochie mommas here " even the girls who hang out and play video games with the drug dealers, like Raya's rival Michelle (Tre Armstrong), receive the luxury of moral complexity " and in Raya she's created a character of quiet determination.
Still, there is a formula for this kind of film " as in "Stomp the Yard" and "You Got Served" " which director Ian Iqbal Rashid inevitably follows.
Raya has to leave her private boarding school suddenly when her Jamaican-immigrant parents can no longer afford to pay tuition. They've spent all their money trying to get Raya's older sister off of drugs " but they couldn't help her, and she died.
Now, the lone child in their cramped apartment, Raya must return to her old school and former friends, who initially blow her off out of jealousy and assume she's turned into a snob. A couple of fierce dance-offs, though, prove she still has moves and deep down is one of them, even though her aspirations remain higher.
Raya initially aligns with one crew (led by the smooth-talking Dwain Murphy) then gets lured into another (led by the duplicitous Cle Bennett). And so you know those two teams will end up facing each other in the finals " just in time for Raya's disapproving mom to show up reluctantly in the audience and watch her baby shine on stage. Melanie Nicholls-King adds surprising vulnerability and heart to a role that could have been a throwaway. (Brennan Gademans is also good as Murphy's serious, bespectacled younger brother, who reads Tolstoy and has a few moves of his own.)
The thunderous, rhythmic choreography from longtime Missy Elliott collaborator Hi-Hat is pretty spectacular, though, and Rashid is confident enough to hold a shot and not ruin the dancing with unnecessary edits. There's nothing slick or glamorous about "How She Move" " despite the complexity of its step routines, the film itself is stripped down, gritty and almost arty.
We probably didn't need the corny banter between the contest's MCs, R&B star Keyshia Cole and comedian DeRay Davis, which is painfully awkward and grinds the action to a halt.
"How She Move," a Paramount Vantage release, is rated PG-13 for some drug content, suggestive material and language. Running time: 98 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.