Promising Prep Student Returns to Ghetto Roots in Inspirational Dance Saga
Raya Green’s (Rutina Wesley) dreams of becoming a doctor seem to be dashed when her elder sister dies of a drug overdose. Sadly, the tragedy leaves her already overworked, West Indian parents so strapped financially that they can no longer afford the tuition, room and board at her exclusive prep school.
This means Raya will have to return home and attend the local public high school, McCabe, which doesn’t measure up academically to the elite private institution where she’s been on track to study medicine. Worse, she’ll have to try to survive the streets of the same crime-infested neighborhood that took her sibling’s life and could quite easily gobble up her future, too.
Back in the ‘hood, Raya puts her ambitions on hold temporarily and focuses more on fitting-in than on excelling, so she won’t be ostracized as an egghead. However, when she’s exposed for dumbing herself down at the blackboard by her math teacher, her punishment is to tutor a truly struggling classmate twice a week afterhours.
Trouble is, like oil and water, the personalities of hard-edged Michelle (Tre Armstrong) and relatively-refined Raya don’t mix. What’s worse, Michelle doesn’t appreciate it when the newcomer suddenly starts hanging out with her “Step” crowd.
Rava’s curiosity about the elaborately-orchestrated dance routines was piqued when she learned about the upcoming Step Monster Competition with a $50,000 grand prize. She figures that if she can find a team that will allow her to join, she just might win the seed money to get her out of the ghetto again.
Although this premise might sound suspiciously similar to that of Stomp the Yard, given that it revolves around dance and a protagonist whose sibling dies at the point of departure, How She Move is enough of a variation on the theme to stand on its own. In fact, this engaging ensemble drama is superior in almost every way, especially in terms of character development, chemistry, choreography and conveying a feeling that you are watching real people in a real situation.
Consequently, accolades are in order for the inspired performances delivered by the two talented young leads, starting with recent Juilliard-grad Rutina Wesley, who makes a most auspicious screen debut as the picture’s emotionally-conflicted heroine. Equally-impressive is dancer-turned-actress Tre Armstrong, who more than holds her own as Ms. Wesley’s trash-talking nemesis.
While we’re spreading some love, kudos too to the supporting cast, which includes Dwain Murphy, who does a decent job as Raya’s love interest, Melanie Nicholls-King as her mom, and Brennan Gademans as her geeky shoulder to lean on. The film also features a few celebs in cameo roles, namely, singers Keyshia Cole and Mya, and comedian DeRay Davis.
Rather than spoil any of the sidebars or subplots, suffice to say: Be prepared to root for Raya for the duration of this satisfying saga, as she sheds tears, studies and stomps her way to the big stage, all while handling an array of pressing teen dilemmas in a refreshingly intelligent fashion for an inner city melodrama. Love Jones (1997) meets Step Up (2006).
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality and drug use.
Running time: 98 minutes
Studio: Paramount Vantage