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‘How She Move’

Gotta dance! Gotta think?

In most movies, those two impulses might seem mutually exclusive. Yet “How She Move” manages to combine them in generally rousing, occasionally thoughtful style.

Considering the body-centric, brain-drained atmosphere that prevails in most movies about young gotta-dance protagonists, a movie that also manages to stimulate your mind along with your sense of rhythm represents a definite breakthrough.

“How She Move” also represents a definite breakthrough for Las Vegas native Rutina Wesley, a graduate of the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts (not to mention the prestigious drama division at New York’s Juilliard School), who makes a winning big-screen debut as Raya Green, the movie’s torn-between-two-worlds protagonist.

In a way, “torn between two worlds” also applies to “How She Move” itself, which debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival (it was nominated for both the grand jury and audience award prizes) and now hits theaters with MTV’s name attached, guaranteeing heavy-duty teen promotion.

While teens understandably make up the movie’s primary audience, even those of us long past our teen years will be able to identify with Raya’s quest.

The seriously studious daughter of Caribbean immigrants living in Toronto’s gritty Jane-Finch Corridor, Raya’s managed to escape the neighborhood dangers at a prestigious private prep school.

That is, until her older sister’s drug addiction leaves Raya’s parents so strapped for cash they can’t afford the private school tuition, forcing Raya to move back home and attend her tough neighborhood high school.

So much for her dreams of becoming a doctor — unless she can win a scholarship to finance a return to prep school. In the meantime, Raya tries to keep her head down in class and avoid trouble.

Which, of course, proves impossible with classmate Michelle (a fiery Tré Armstrong), a trash-talking, take-no-crap rival who resents Raya’s academic prowess — and her step-dancing talents.

Especially when Raya hears about a regional step dance competition — with a $50,000 first prize — and blasts her way onto a previously all-male crew competing for the championship.

If this sounds familiar, it should; several plot points, from the step competition to one sibling haunted by another’s grim fate, surfaced in last year’s “Stomp the Yard.”

The movie also echoes 2000’s “Girlfight” with its portrait of a spirited young woman’s drive to succeed in a male-dominated field.

But “How She Move” has some moves all its own, from its Caribbean-accented backdrop to a protagonist with more on her mind than dance and romance.

Annemarie Morais’ screenplay isn’t afraid to make Raya less than perfect, capturing the character’s willingness to compromise her principles for the sake of victory.

But Raya’s not the only one willing to compromise.

“How She Move” makes some obvious sacrifices that will satisfy audiences anxious for more dancing — but guaranteed to frustrate (and disappoint) those of us intrigued by the characters and their conflicts.

That’s especially true of the clash between Raya and her mother (“The Wire’s” poignant Melanie Nicholls-King), who’s determined to see her daughter fulfill the dreams she never could — dreams her laid-back husband (Conrad Coates) has all but abandoned.

Overall, “How She Move” prefers to focus on Maya’s moves rather than her motivations as she rehearses and performs with her step crew.

In the process, we get her inevitable romance with leader Bishop (Dwain Murphy) and her obligatory friendship with a quirky fellow dancer (endearingly geeky Brennan Gademans).

Best of all, however, we get explosive dance numbers — 14 in all — from impromptu dance-offs to eye-popping competition routines that shift “How She Move” into overdrive.

Throughout, director Ian Iqbal Rashid (whose 2004 comedy “Touch of Pink” also debuted at Sundance) maintains a refreshingly grounded approach, reminding us that, despite the dynamite dances, there’s something more at stake for the characters than shaking their collective booty.

That in no way undercuts the impact of the spirited dance sequences. Choreographed by Hi Hat, they not only provide “How She Move” with a heartbeat but a heart, a passionate focus for the characters to show off their individuality, pride and passion along with their spectacular moves.

Yet that only works when you have performers able to master the dance moves — and the motivations behind them.

And that’s where Rutina Wesley comes in. As a classically trained actress, she’s more than capable of handling “How She Move’s” dramatic demands.

Even more importantly (at least in this movie), Wesley knows how to convey emotion through movement, making Raya’s steps toward maturity and self-expression at least as important — and almost as entertaining — as her dance steps prove to be.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0272.

 

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