Friday, April 14, 2006

Take the Lead

TAKE THE LEAD (Liz Friedlander, 2006)

Following in the footsteps of cinema's passionate and unconventional educators, Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) tries to straighten out the lives of some problem teens in TAKE THE LEAD. Contrary to the mostly defeated staff of a New York public high school, Pierre believes that the troublesome students can be reformed if he can impart self-respect and discipline to them.

Pierre is a ballroom dance instructor, not a high school teacher, but out of concern for the students he volunteers to watch over detention if he is permitted to teach the foxtrot and other traditional steps. The principal (Alfre Woodard) is desperate for someone to supervise the kids, so if Pierre will do it for free, she’s not about to refuse help. Pierre’s pupils bristle at being taught dances that have no resemblance to their hip-hop moves, but slowly he wins over some of them. He intends to cap their learning by entering them into a dance competition.

TAKE THE LEAD is based on Dulaine’s true story and the Dancing Classrooms program he initiated in New York public schools. Per any film with its origin in a true story, the facts have been altered. The real Dulaine worked with fifth-graders rather than high schoolers, a change that allows the film more dramatic opportunities and conveniences.

TAKE THE LEAD’S climactic competition scene is wholly ludicrous but energetic and entertaining nonetheless. TAKE THE LEAD succeeds because Banderas makes a compelling central figure. He has an unspoken toughness that makes it believable he could confront these teenagers and get them to listen without being laughed out of the room or worse. His generosity and genuine interest in giving the troubled students respect for themselves and others comes through in how he carries himself more than what he tells them. TAKE THE LEAD hints that Pierre has had a rough past, but the mystery surrounding him is barely breached, which makes his secretive history seem like the byproduct of lazy screenwriting.

This conventional cross of DANGEROUS MINDS and MAD HOT BALLROOM can be beholden to the inspiring teacher movie formula, but Banderas’ quiet grace keeps the film from pushing the motivational message too insistently.

Grade: B-

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