"Stand and Deliver." "Dangerous Minds." "School of Rock
." The list alone of feel-good motion pictures about an unlikely teacher inspiring his or her students could fill out an entire book. Add in all of the films about coaches who see their ragtag sports team to victory, and an encyclopedia would be born. Or, maybe, it just seems that way. "Take the Lead" is the latest entry in this tried-and-true genre, doing a minimum of work to set itself apart from the pack. Alternately cheesy, clichéd and predictable, the picture is made bearable because of a few nice performances. Even so, things only truly thrive when the action switches to the dance floor.
Antonio Banderas (2002's "Femme Fatale
") is out of his element as Pierre Dulaine, a dance instructor practically ready for martyrdom who offers his services at a troubled inner-city high school. With gang-related violence at an all-time high and test scores at an all-time low, well-meaning principal Augustine James (Alfre Woodard) accepts Pierre's offer, handing him over free reign with a group of kids serving year-long afterschool detentions. Pierre's ideato build character and self-esteem by teaching the hip-hop-loving students how to ballroom dancesounds ridiculous to Augustine at first, but she is soon proven wrong. As the group begins enjoying themselves through the different styles of ballroom dance, they suddenly find something worth working hard for: a dance competition that will award the winning couple five thousand dollars.
Inspired by a true story (what isn't these days?), "Take the Lead" doesn't miss a beat in covering familiar territory. From the early scenes of teen defiance, to their eventual opening-up and learning to get along, to their arduous dance training, to the climactic ballroom dancing competition, music video director Liz Friedlander (making her feature debut) proves that she has studied the conventions of this type of film well. She seems to be most at home in the dancing sequences, even those that are choppily edited to shield less talent than meets the eyes. One fleeting moment near the end is magical, with Rock and Lahrette's performance on the crowded dance floor segueing to them alone on the stage and loving every minute of it. What director Friedlander neglects to bring to the table is a much-needed sense of individuality or, ironically enough, inspiration.
The personal dramas the students face are obvious in their conception, while the central figure of instructor-turned-muse Pierre Dulaine remains an uncomplicated, uninteresting person. Portrayed as close to perfect and without any character flaws or weaknesses to make him dynamic, Pierre is a dullard. That we learn that his wife died five years earlier is about the only gateway offered to understanding who he is or why he is so generous in helping everyone around him. Antonio Banderas flounders in the role; he isn't terrible, but there is no spark behind his eyes to suggest any sort of complexity.
The troubled, mostly lower-class students are either barely sketched out or given wasted subplots that don't even receive closure at the end. Rock (Rob Brown), whose brother was recently killed in a street shooting, has an unhappy home life with two parents who choose to drown their sorrows in booze rather than work to make enough money to put food on the table. Struggling to not make the same mistakes as his brother, Rock nonetheless has begun falling into a similar pattern of crime, including the destruction of Principal James' car. Meanwhile, Lahrette (YaYa DaCosta) finds solace through Pierre's teachings, helping her to deal with being a second mother to her younger siblings while her own mother prostitutes herself. Both of these subplots are occasionally effective, not the least because of raw and poignant acting turns from Rob Brown (2005's "Coach Carter
") and especially newcomer YaYa DaCosta, but there is no payoff to make them worth sitting through. Either a lot of footage found its way to the cutting room floor or screenwriter Dianne Houston recklessly forgot about these side stories before she was finished the script.
"Take the Lead" concludes on a strange note. A motion picture that at first seems to be about a group of problem-plagued youths learning to expand their horizons and appreciate the art of classic music and ballroom dancing betrays these very notions when the students hijack the stereo system at the competition and resort to their old narrow-minded ways. As they dance into the end credits to the strains of their beloved hip-hopand without the winner of the contest being revealed or the other subplots wrapped up, mind youthe viewer is abruptly led to ask whether they have learned much of anything. This misguided final scene aside, "Take the Lead" is a pleasant but wholeheartedly forgettable diversion. There have been worse films of its ilk and there have certainly been far superior, making this one fall smack-dab in the middle of terminal disposability.