I've seen about a half-dozen "urban teen dance movies" in the past couple of years, even going back to watch Save the Last Dance, which may have sparked the current craze for this genre. The best movies have naturally been the ones with the most interesting and energetic dance numbers -- the storylines are interchangeable and unmemorable, and the characters tend to be stock types. The latest in this genre is How She Move, a Canadian film about step dancing, that was bought at Sundance in 2007 right after the similar Stomp the Yard stomped the box office.
How She Move has some electrifying dance numbers, but the plot treads in the same steps as its predecessors. Raya (Rutina Wesley) is an ambitious teen studying hard at a private high school -- she doesn't want to suffer the same fate as her older sister, who just died from a drug overdose. But her sister's tragic troubles drained the family income, so Raya must return to her parents and go to the local public school until she can win a scholarship. She soon learns that other teens in her neighborhood are able to earn some cash at "comps" -- step competitions -- so she decides to make money for her schooling in this way. But which step team should she join: the all-girls group headed by her longtime neighbor Michelle (Tre Armstrong), the boys' team managed by her old friend Bishop (Dwain Murphy), who has a little crush on her, or the tried-and-true winners ruled by the guy who led her sister astray?
Of course Raya's mom doesn't approve of the dancing, or anything that interferes with Raya's schoolwork and college prep, and both parents are still so devastated by one daughter's death that they're not giving Raya the support she needs. Bishop's little brother Quake (Brennan Gademans) wants to join the team although he also likes to read Tolstoy. Anytime a teen film has a sweet little brother or sister, I start to get nervous because I'm pretty sure the child is going to die by the end of the film, in some tragic moment that brings everyone to their senses.
I have to wonder if Paramount Vantage edited the movie slightly after buying it at Sundance, because it's difficult to tell where the film is set (except for the inevitable climactic competition held in Detroit). The name of the neighborhood or even the city is never mentioned. Maybe the location was downplayed so American teens might identify with the characters more, and think they were living in an American city, instead of somewhere in Canada. I dug around on the Web to find out that How She Move is set in Toronto, in an area called Jane-Finch that has a strong Jamaican-Canadian culture. Teenagers watching this film are not going to care -- you know it's a low-income area where everyone is struggling, and really that's all you need to know, although at least this explains why so many of the adults in the film had strong Jamaican accents.
I was particularly interested in Raya's attempt to join an all-boys' team rather than the all-girls' team her neighbor Michelle has organized. But "girls' teams never win" in the stepping world, and instead of trying to help make the girls good enough to win for once, she betrays her friend so she has a better chance at winning the money. On the other hand, "mixed" teams never win either -- only all-boys' teams. So is it a strike for or against feminism for a girl to try to be part of a winning team instead of working with an all-female team? I know, I know, the teens watching this movie may not care, but it's a fascinating question that you don't usually get with a teen-dance movie. Personally, I was rooting for the all-girls' team to win, just to show Raya a thing or two.
The other reason why I was rooting for the girls' team reflects a problem with the film itself: Raya is a pretty dull character, difficult to sympathize with. We understand the problems with her situation, but her character has no depth. Michelle and Quake have twice the personality or Raya or Bishop. Fortunately, the dance numbers keep your attention going during the slower parts of the film, especially the Step Monster competition numbers. One other convention of the genre is that anytime you see a dance number where people are flying through the air, you know that team has at least a shot at winning. And during the big competition, dancers fly through the air in fabulous ways.
A week or two after watching a teen-dance movie, the story gets mixed up in my head with all the other movies in that genre, and I can't remember which is which. I saw a trailer for Step Up 2 The Streets before this movie, and I had to work hard to remember that the original Step Up wasn't the one involving the college fraternities (Stomp the Yard) or the one with Antonio Banderas (Take the Lead); it was the one with the street-dancing guy who learns ballet. How She Move has very little to distinguish it from the other films in the genre, and I'll probably remember it as the Canadian one with the cute brainy little brother. On the other hand, if you're more interested in dance numbers and music than you are in story or character, How She Move may be just what you're looking for.