Based on a true story (a phrase that has dilapidated to the point of being meaningless), Take the Lead is a harmless tale about one man’s attempt to reach out to a handful of difficult students in inner-city New York with ballroom dancing. With a modus operandi so very familiar to American audiences — the underdogs and the unlikely competitive scenario; the high-brow vs. low-brow culture clash also very customary to dance films — Take the Lead can’t succeed with any surprises, but luckily it manages to pass itself off with moderate competency and an affable cast of characters.
Antonio Banderas’ character, Pierre Dulaine, happens upon a young hood, Rock (Rob Brown), vandalizing a car. He reports the incident to the high school principal (Alfre Woodard), whose car it happened to be, and then randomly suggests that ballroom dancing might be a beneficial diversion for many of the delinquent students. Dulaine’s proposal seems to come out of nowhere, possibly based of a cursory survey of the students and faculty, and Woodard’s instinct is to laugh it off. But, eager to pawn off some of the more obnoxious teens on a hapless passerby who doesn’t appear to want money, she agrees to give him the reins to a crowd of perpetual detention students.
Dulaine then takes his effete manners and dance mores to the unruly gaggle of punks, who react with predictable scorn. The kids are a typical batch of smarmy pranksters, but the context for their being anathematized as “the worst in the school” never feels worthy. At most, these kids are harmless class clowns, of whom only Rock seems to be genuinely troubled and dangerous.
After his debut in Finding Forrester, Brown has become noteworthy for his candid performances, due in no small part to his unpretentious acting. Brown never studied the craft professionally before his first foray into film, and is best when appearing as characters like this — alternately stolid and harsh, but yielding occasional glimpses of gentle pathos. Rock comes from a difficult situation: His brother was murdered in gang violence a few years ago, causing his parents to lapse into ennui and alcoholism. Rock works after school to help support them and genuinely tries to do well in his classes so he can make a better life for himself.
After a shaky start, the students gradually warm up to Dulaine because of his patience and earnest absorption in the ballroom arts. Antonio Banderas was born to play roles like these, and it’s very easy to believe the delinquents would be so taken with him. Dulaine’s character is pretty superficial — we’re given no real evidence why he’s so passionate about his line of work, but it doesn’t really matter. Banderas’ swarthy Latin charm and convincing debonair fit the part and are fun to watch.
Take the Lead isn’t half bad, considering that the plot machinations are already worn into the subconscious of every moviegoer alive. What saves it from the trash bin of faux Dangerous Minds-cum-Save the Last Dance mediocrity is its ingenuousness. As an instructor, Dulaine never appears sanctimonious or pedantic. He presents dancing as a worthy form of expression, as compatible and energetic as his charges’ hip-hop. When the kids present remixes of his material with R&B flourishes, he accepts their inventions with enthusiasm. Likewise, throughout the movie, his reluctant students express a healthy amount of skepticism for an art they see (perhaps correctly) as suburban and upper-crust, without value in their lives. All of these debates feel relevant.
With such a well-worn story there are bound to be pitfalls, however, and most of the ones here come with the sappy-ass denouement: The storied dance-off against some hoity-toities at a competition. But that’s to be expected. Even when kowtowing to weak cliches, the film bounces along on its effervescent energy in such a way that it’s never boring. Liz Friedlander (Yes, yes, another music video director) brings an appropriate visual impatience that zips things along, both in and out of the dance sequences. And since Take the Lead isn’t taking itself too seriously, the faster pacing and editing are a boon. This isn’t a film that’s going to blow anyone’s mind, but at least the vision is an innocuous one.
Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.
Take the Lead / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()