How She Move (review)

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She Move Good

These kids today, with their funky step dancing and their vibrant street culture and their desperate attempts to raise tuition for private school. Where did we go wrong with them?

But I kid How She Move, one of the better examples of the recent subgenre of “inner-city kids dancing their way out of poverty, or at least into personal integrity and a measure of happiness.” It’s a little bit earnest, it’s a little bit afterschool-special-y, but its young newcomer cast is highly appealing, its spirit is honest and affecting. And the dancing… The dancing makes you wanna jump up and stomp your feet and clap your hands and shout out your anger. Even a boring white girl like me.
All of which is why, I’m sure, How She Move was nominated for the grand jury and audience award prizes at last year’s Sundance, and why it was snapped up for distribution by Paramount Vantage. Anyone who saw the film at Sundance (I didn’t) may notice that it’s a little more polished than it had been: the studio gave director Ian Iqbal Rashid funds to reshoot the big dance finale — I dunno what it was like before, but it’s certainly rousing and energetic now — and do some other buffing up. Even that enhancing, though, hasn’t diminished one of the most satisfying aspects of the movie: it’s not a glossy, shiny product of Hollywood. It retains the rough edges and authenticity of the small-budget Canadian production that it is. (The script is the first from Canadian TV writer Annmarie Morais.)

This is the story of Raya Green (Rutina Wesley), who was in the process of escaping her crime-ridden and drug-overrun Toronto ghetto — apparently Canada isn’t quite the paradise we frustrated Americans sometimes imagine it to be — when circumstance yanks her back. The money her Caribbean-immigrant parents had put aside for tuition at the ritzy private school in the distant suburbs Raya has been attending is gone, eaten away by caring for her drug-addict older sister (or perhaps the sister stole it to score; I wasn’t clear on that point). So now Raya must return home, return to the crumbling public school where her former friends think she’s a traitor for running away in the first place.

Raya is that rare teen-movie protagonist who feels like a real kid, balanced precariously between protected childhood and the adult world: she screws up, she does selfish things without realizing what the consequences will be, and she’s still in the process of getting to know herself. (“I’ve got it under control” is her mantra, but of course she doesn’t.) Strong and sure, Wesley is a find, a natural actor who can be confident in herself even when her character does not share that poise, and she is completely plausible — in a way that many Hollywood movies do not allow characters to be — as a young woman both brainy and bursting with ambition as well as one supremely athletic.

For Raya has not quite abandoned the culture of her home: since she was a child she has been stepping, a kind of percussive dance rooted in African tradition and now informed by urban urgency and immigrant angst. It’s like Riverdance meets breakdancing, and I don’t mean that in the snarky way it might sound: it is as culturally similar and springs from a similar place as Irish step dancing does. Only here, it’s been taken up as a creative — and nonviolent — form of battle among the teens of this ghetto, and obviously many others, too. Because Raya learns of a step competition called Step Monster coming up in Detroit: the grand prize of $50,000 would get her back in her beloved private school and back on track for med school. Of course, all-girls crews never win competitions, and mixed crews are all but unheard of. But she’s got to get on a boys’ crew if she has any chance of winning.

So now Raya’s got a fight on multiple fronts: with her mother, who fears her younger daughter will end up on the same dead-end path the older one took; with her former friends, male and female, who already feel betrayed and are unwilling to accept her back into their fold so readily; and with herself, as she discovers some not very nice things about how far she’s willing to go to get what she wants.

I was reminded a lot by How She Move of the 2005 Sundance documentary Rize, which introduced us to real kids in Los Angeles and the dance competitions through which they’ve created their own lively subculture and support systems. Just as that one made me feel a bit ignorant for being completely unaware of something so vitally important to so many people, this one, too, is a welcome bit of brain expansion for me. Because it’s easy to forget that there is more than one kind of success, even if not all of them get the stamp of approval from dominant culture, and more than one way to get there.

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