Should "Honey," the feature film debut of music video director Bille Woodruff, have been as painless and likable as it is? Fixing the mistakes of the similar 2001 bomb, "Glitter
" (starting with an actress who can act circles around Mariah Carey), "Honey" is part slice-of-life drama about a hardworking New York City dancer named Honey Daniels (Jessica Alba) who finds out the cost of success is more than she bargained for, and part hip-hop fairy tale where the said Honey is promoted from backup dancer to lead music video choreographer in a matter of about five minutes. It's all kind of inconsequential and silly when you stop to think about it for too long, but the use of realistic characters and relationships to tell what is essentially a music industry-set fantasy works surprisingly well.
"You can't have the future in hip-hop that you can have in ballet, " Honey Daniels' concerned mother (Lonette McKee) tells her early on. But, no, ever since she was a child, 22-year-old Honey has had a dream to be a professional hip-hop dancer for big-time musicians. Working three jobs to make ends meet, including as a dance instructor for inner-city kids, Honey finally gets her chance to hit it big when music director Michael Ellis (David Moscow) spots her moves at a club and offers her work on his latest video. Hit it big, she does, as Honey is promptly promoted to head choreographer on music videos for Tweet and Ginuwine. With success, however, comes expectations and pressures she is unsure she can handle. Without much time to work at the dance center anymore, Honey worries when one of her admiring students, Benny (Lil' Romeo), regresses into drug dealing. And when Michael expects Honey to repay him sexually and she turns him down, Honey suddenly finds herself looking at career suicide when her's hasn't even really begun yet.
The key to the small-scale success of "Honey" lays with director Bille Woodruff and screenwriters Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson, who rarely go over-the-top or maudlin with the material. The story itself plays like little more than a young woman's idealistic wish fulfillment, but Woodruff, Brown, and Watson allow their characters and situations to flow smoothly and breathe. And there is a gentle sweetness and an attention to detail, too, such as when Honey says goodnight to potential nice-guy suitor Chaz (Mekhi Phifer) and accidentally stumbles on the stairs in front of him. Also, watch closely at the way Honey tries to get through to Benny when she visits him in a detention center after he is caught selling drugs. She does not talk down to him, as an adult to a child, but treats him as an equal with a real shot to break free from the life of crime he is headed toward.
In the protagonist of Honey, teenage audiences have an admirable role model; one that does not compromise her morals and beliefs to get ahead, and one that is free-thinking, intelligent, and driven. As Honey, Jessica Alba (1999's "Idle Hands
") does not prove to be an exceptional actress, but she is a good one with further potential in future roles that might demand more of her. Alba is beautiful, to be sure, but when she speaks, you can tell that there is a mind to go along with her looks. After garnering something of a cult following with her short-lived television series, "Dark Angel," "Honey" may be Alba's deserved open door to movie stardom. She is worth following here, in a motion picture that blends all of the cliches of "Flashdance," "Save the Last Dance
," and "Coyote Ugly
," so who knows what she could do with truly creative material.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag, but the weaker participants don't hinder the film in any calamitous way. Lil' Romeo (2002's "Like Mike
") shows off a little too much even for his smart alleck role of Benny, while David Moscow (2003's "Just Married
" and the young Tom Hanks in 1988's "Big"), as Michael Ellis, is just too good to be playing someone without any redeeming qualities. Is it really necessary to always make the big music producer/director character in these movies a slimeball? Imagine how much more fresh this subplot might have been if Michael continued to believe in Honey even after she rejected his advances, seeing the error of his way in the process. Rounding out the major actors, Joy Bryant (2002's "Antwone Fisher
") is amiably sassy and warm-hearted as Honey's best friend, Gina, while Mekhi Phifer (2001's "O
") is fine, but underused as Honey's love interest, Chaz.
"Honey" is no end-of-the-year awards contender, but it is snappy and charming enough to overcome its predictability and shopworn cliches. The dance sequences are vibrantly choreographed, the soundtrack is lively (and this is coming from someone who is not a fan of rap or hip-hop), and in Jessica Albawho performed most of her own dancingviewers have a sympathetic, energetic anchor to pull them through the movie's rougher patches. In the real world, "Honey" could probably never happen, but for 95 minutes it's a nice thing to dream.