If How She Move
enjoys any success at the box office it will have a savvy trailer editor to thank. At first glance Move
looks like it has the potential to successfully combine the urban melodramatics of 8-Mile
with the fierce dance sequences of Stomp the Yard
. But the screenplay isn’t strong enough to provide either that ‘gotta-get-out-of-the-ghetto’ urgency we want from a working class drama or the ‘wow’ factor we expect from a great dance movie. Even at a slim 98 minutes, the movie contains barely enough entertaining material for a thirty second trailer; the rest is perfunctory filler.
How She Move is clearly the work of a young screenwriter (Annmarie Morais) and director (Ian Iqbal Rashid). The pacing is choppy, the plot complications are contrived, and dance-off sequences spontaneously erupt as if in a musical that doesn’t have the self-awareness to realize it’s camp. But the biggest problem is that the choreography isn’t exciting enough to illicit much more than a shrug. I kept hoping the movie was saving the best dance moves for last, but the big step competition in the finale relies too heavily on props for visual effect.
At best, a dance movie should have the kind of infectious exuberance that makes you want to jump out of your chair and join in (or take some lessons, depending on your skill level). But Move is so lacking in that kind of ‘gotta dance’ energy even the movie’s protagonist doesn’t dance for the sheer love of it. Instead, Raya (Rutina Wesley) starts participating in step competitions purely as a means to an urgent but not exactly inspiring end: She needs the prize money to fund her college education.
Move opens with Raya, a perfectionist high school student, returning home from an expensive private school in the aftermath of her drug-addicted sister’s death. Trapped in the Toronto ghetto where she grew up, Raya fears her Caribbean working class community will drag her backward. Raya’s solution is to join an all male step crew lead by an old friend, Bishop (Dwain Murphy), in the hopes of using their prize winnings to fund her medical school education.
The problem is that once Raya joins Bishop’s step crew she goes about dancing the same way she goes about studying, tutoring, and attending class: solemnly. Raya’s seriousness is understandable considering the emotional weight of her sister’s recent death, but it sets an odd tone for a dance movie. In the hands of a more skillful director Raya’s glum demeanor might have been used to inform some innovative dance sequences, but that would require Raya using dance to work out her emotional issues through movement.
Unfortunately, we never see Raya dancing as a means to express something vital that she can’t say articulate other way—even when Raya uses step to face off with female rival Michele (Tre Armstrong) or flirts with Bishop. If our protagonist doesn’t care deeply about step, why should we?
By the time the usual formulaic plot points plunk Raya down in the middle of a third act morality crisis involving an unscrupulous step crew she’s ditched Bishop to join, we haven’t invested enough in Raya to be able to connect with the consequences of her success or failure. A more seasoned actress might have been able to fill in the gaps of Raya’s underdeveloped character with a rich performance, but Wesley is merely passable. Worse, Wesley isn’t the most watchable dancer on screen. My eyes kept drifting to Raya’s rival Michele whenever the two were on screen together.
Move’s saving grace is director Rashid’s ability to create a few affecting moments around Raya’s tense but loving relationship with her grieving parents (Conrad Coates and Melanie Nicholls-King), whose relationship is rapidly cracking under the weight of their daughter’s passing. Nicholls-King gives the film’s strongest performance as a demanding mother whose fear of losing a second daughter inadvertently causes her to push Raya away. The final scene in Move makes for a surprisingly poignant slice of domestic drama, but it made me wish the director had made a movie about the one thing he clearly knows how to dramatize—the quiet pain of a grieving family—instead of under-delivering with a genre film that, done right, should feel dynamic, visceral, thrilling, and infectious.