Liz Friedlander's Take the Lead is a marginally fictional biopic of Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas), the real-life New York dance instructor who found himself compelled to educate bad-seed, inner-city high school students. It is a familiar story with an original approach - Friedlander applies the elegance of a waltz to the natural arrogance of hip-hop music.
The picture arrives at the tail end of our nation's current dance craze, which could affect its overall success. Documentary film fans caught a similar story in last year's Mad Hot Ballroom, and primetime television audiences already have tuned in to two seasons of Dancing with the Stars. How many people will be willing to have their cards punched for another tango around the dance floor?
Dulaine comes up with the inventive outreach program after witnessing troubled teen Rock (Rob Brown) take a 9-iron to his principal's car late one night. The dance instructor launches an after-school program, but administrator Augustine James (Alfre Woodard) limits him to the detention-hall castoffs.
These forgotten students represent the easiest of Hollywood stereotypes, though the physically gifted young actors make a valiant effort to inject life into their cookie-cutter representations. Rock and tough girl Larhette (Yaya DaCosta) have a violent history that goes beyond the classroom and into the streets. The overweight "Monster" (Brandon Andrews) possesses the will to dance but can't convince a female partner to join him. Brazen gangster Ramos (Dante Basco) isn't short on confidence, but could use a few etiquette lessons. The story balances the racial equation by giving equal time to Caitlin (Lauren Collins), one of Dulaine's upscale dance clients who wrestles with nerves as she prepares for her pending cotillion.
Friedlander makes her feature film debut after learning the ropes on music videos for Simple Plan, R.E.M., and 3 Doors Down. Her cameras sway in rhythm with the cast's dancing feet. She also employs quick edits without being choppy - a common mistake of first-time directors.
But if Friedlander is graceful, then screenwriter Dianne Houston has two left feet. She pens the clumsiest of obstacles for these kids - Caitlin's cotillion happens to be the same night as the city-wide dance competition... oh no! Houston's Lead script contains as many overused clichés as it does hip gyrations. But as bad as they are, they never sink the overall feel-good messages reaching out to the teens in the audience.
Banderas is the right choice to play Dulaine, something I wouldn't have said five years ago. Once content to rehash his fiery Spanish guise no matter the role, the actor has matured into a warm, paternal, and credible father figure. He instills Dulaine with an instructor's passion and patience.
As Banderas grows up, I merely grow old. I've seen plenty of movies like Lead, where a tough-love teacher schools misguided teens. For the first time, though, I related more to the instructor than I did to the kids. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch The Breakfast Club for the umpteenth time so I can pretend to be Judd Nelson for the rest of the day.
Off to see the wizard.