An impressive first feature from Daniel and Erika Randall Beahm, “Leading Ladies” belies both the paucity of its budget and its helmers’ relative inexperience. Easygoing musical skillfully weaves disparate elements without missing a step: Family drama, gay-consciousness themes and dance-contest movie tropes all do-se-do together in curious harmony. Expertly shot, energetically choreographed numbers boast a lightness of touch miles away from the freneticism of Baz Luhrmann, while the tyro thesps’ unaffected performances add a note of sweetness to pic’s atmosphere of guileless simplicity. Enjoyable song-and-dancer could appeal to younger auds as an indie alternative to “Glee” and “High School Musical.”
Ballroom dancing positively defines the Camparis, a clan presided over by larger-than-life stage mother and former dance queen Shari (co-choreographer and real-life ballroom diva Melanie LaPatin). Shari has poured her energy into molding her youngest daughter, Tasi (Shannon Lea Smith), into her worthy, equally flashy successor. Tasi, whose dance partner is gay family friend Cedric (“So You Think You Can Dance” winner Benji Schwimmer), has already made a name for herself on the ballroom circuit, and frequently clashes with her controlling mom in loud, stormy showdowns. Tasi’s slightly older sister, Toni (Laurel Vail), serves as breadwinner, peacemaker and Tasi’s stand-in dance partner (Toni leads), her self-effacing serenity not without a healthy dose of ironic humor.
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When a pregnancy she’d been trying to hide sidelines Tasi, Shari hopes to groom Toni to take her sister’s place. Toni agrees, but with the surprise stipulation that she choose her own partner. For Toni harbors a secret of her own: She has fallen in love with lively, been-around blonde Mona (Nicole Dionne), who has totally succumbed to Toni’s understated charm. It is this highly unconventional girl-girl pairing that finally hits the ballroom floor.
Although the filmmakers opt for a relatively naturalistic style of musical, with numbers directly linked to dance milieus, none of the onscreen hoofing actually unfolds at the contest venue. Instead, the Beahms lean toward deconstruction — rehearsals in vast studio spaces, impromptu gay pas-de-deux on bare nightclub stages, and even whimsical ablutions in front of a bathroom mirror offer occasions for synchronization, with Peter Biagi’s camerawork in inventive lock-step.
The sole exception is a full-blown showstopper performed in the aisles and display stands of a supermarket as the Camparis go grocery shopping in style. Imaginatively incorporating Tasi’s insecurity about her public pregnancy, she musically complains that “Everyone wants a piece of her” while high-kicking checkers and baggers seek to grope her tummy.
This elaborate fantasy break, though, highlights the spontaneity of the Beahms’ approach elsewhere — snatched moments of intimacy or elation rather than orchestrated setpieces. Run-throughs are constantly interrupted, and even Cedric’s virtuoso, flamboyant turn onstage is edited to emphasize his enjoyment of his assumed femme role rather than to showcase the full dance.
The filmmakers’ many hats — Erika Randall Beahm co-scripted and co-choreographed, while co-helmer hubby Daniel contributed music and produced — enhance the film’s flow, maintaining solid production values without the gloss.