Fans of the vigorous African-American step dancing currently on offer in B.O. hit "Stomp the Yard" should check out its Caribbean-Canadian counterpart in "How She Move."
Fans of the vigorous African-American step dancing currently on offer in B.O. hit “Stomp the Yard” should check out its Caribbean-Canadian counterpart in “How She Move.” Title refers not only to its heroine’s physical gyrations but also her moral maneuverings as she strives to break out of her lower-class surroundings in this moody, intelligent take on conventional material. Emphasis on the pic’s electrifying dance sequences could help carve out a small commercial niche for the Paramount Vantage release.
Like “Stomp the Yard,” “How She Move” inflicts the death of a sibling on its protagonist that haunts her and informs her choices for the duration of the picture. A brilliant student and gifted dancer, Raya Green (Rutina Wesley) is still grieving for her older sister, whose death from a drug overdose decimated her family’s finances and forced her to leave her elite prep school.
Returning to public school in Toronto’s gritty Jane-Finch corridor, Raya has a tense reunion with tough girl Michelle (Tre Armstrong), who attacks Raya for being a stuck-up poser even as she drifts further into the drugs-and-partying scene that claimed her sister’s life. The bad blood between Raya and Michelle leads to the first of several impromptu dance-offs, which open Raya to the possibility of using her step skills to get ahead.
Already flirting with good-looking Bishop (Dwain Murphy), Raya talks him into letting her join JSJ, their all-male troupe that’s hoping to win a competition with a major cash prize. Not dissimilar to 2000 Sundance fave “Girlfight,” the pic is very much about a tough girl’s struggle to succeed in a male-dominated arena.
Steeped in the accents of Toronto’s Caribbean community, Annmarie Morais’ script also gives Raya some questionable choices — at one point leaving JSJ to join a more seasoned troupe — that are meant to dramatize her desire to get ahead at any cost, but which, despite Wesley’s strong performance, don’t always feel organically developed.
At the same time, the tale has a gratifying untidiness as it casually addresses themes of class, sexism, drug use and the relentless drive to succeed. “How She Move” is also deeply invested in relationships, most rewardingly the interplay of anger and sympathy between Raya and Michelle, and also Raya’s dealings with her laid-back dad (Conrad Coates) and anxious mom (Melanie Nicholls-King, who gives an indelibly moving turn in a small role).
Helmer Ian Iqbal Rashid (whose debut feature “Touch of Pink” preemed at Sundance in 2004) infuses the production with a grit and weightiness that never feel overdone, and his most dramatically effective moments — including the unexpectedly resonant ending — are often the quietest. The hugely enjoyable dance sequences (spectacularly choreographed by Hi Hat) give the pic a regular jolt of energy, though some of the more elaborate formations could have benefited from a widescreen frame.