High-spirited, energetic and colorful, the new Jamaican film “Dancehall Queen” is the story of a humble street vendor who finds an unusual way of getting her family out of a harrowing, violence-ridden ghetto. Emotionally engaging, if also too broad and simplistic, this contempo fairy tale boasts such an enchanting lead performance by Audrey Reid that the limited theatrical distribution it is currently receiving in major cities seems deserved. An entertaining movie that offers a pulsating reggae soundtrack and scintillating sights of the vibrant island, pic should also travel the festival road as an all-too-prare sampling from Jamaica.
Structure is that of a modern Cinderella story, except there is no Prince Charming. Marcia (Reid) is a dynamic, strong-willed woman, but bringing up her two daughters as a single mom, she can barely manage a meager living as a street vendor, and so has come to depend on the shabby figure of “Uncle” Larry (Carl Davis).
But Larry demands a return on his investment, and the target is Tanya, Marcia’s adolescent daughter, who’s forced to repay his kindness with sexual favors. Things get worse when Priest (Paul Campbell), a vicious thug, tries to kick Marcia out of her vending stall so he can set up shop there. In desperation , she turns to Mrs. Gordon (Pauline Stone-Myrie), the local dressmaker, and asks her to make her a sexually alluring costume for the Dancehall Queen contest. In her new get-up, no one, including Larry, recognizes Marcia.
Rest of the juicy melodrama, which is presented with “big” emotions befitting the characters, follows a familiar pattern. In her disguise as the “mystery lady ,” Marcia manipulates Priest and Larry against each other. She then devotes her full energy to winning the contest against a nasty competitor. In the rousingly upbeat — and well-earned — ending, Marcia becomes the queen of the reggae-infused dance hall, winning prize money and, more importantly, a respectable identity and sense of worth.
Dominating almost every scene, Reid is such a natural talent and photogenic presence that it’s hard to believe this is her screen debut. The other thesps do their jobs proficiently, bringing verve to their roles.
Realizing the importance of mood and authenticity, co-directors Don Letts and Rick Elgood give their story an undeniable urgency and punch, unabashedly accentuating the broad conflicts and feelings. The film’s most distinctive element is Wally Badarou’s score, which is performed by a gallery of dancehall stars, including Beenie Man (who provides the title track), Bounty Killer, Lady Shaw, Junior Demus and Sanchez. The flashy dresses and multicolored wigs add considerable color to the proceedings. Though old-fashioned, “Dancehall Queen” is a movie made straight from the heart.