The timing for "Take the Lead" couldn't be any better, what with "Dancing with the Stars" and "Mad Hot Ballroom" both driving a resurgence of interest in ballroom dancing. The difference is, those artistic endeavors concentrated on the footwork and the pageantry. "Lead" wants to tell a life affirming story.
The film opens with a standard "inspired by a true story" card that hints right away that nothing we are about to see is actually true. Even without that announcement, the screenplay by Dianne Houston is written so broadly that any sense of reality has been tangoed right out the window. "Lead" is a glorified after school special, crafted to appeal almost solely to suburban parents who are afraid of their own kids. The film is a little "Dangerous Minds," "Dirty Dancing," and "Boyz n the Hood" all mixed into one unfortunate bag, and regurgitated onto a silver screen that is so very exhausted from formula entertainment like this.
Making her filmmaking debut is director Liz Friedlander, a veteran of music videos. Friedlander certainly knows her way around an editing suite, cutting the film tightly to match the beats on the soundtrack and the throw of the hips. At its best, "Lead" bops with glee as the kids find their footing, along with the elegance of the professionals who stalk the floor with Lachey-esque timing. It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that "Lead" is most confident when on the dance floor. Friedlander knows visual filmmaking, and only here does she shine. When time comes to address the secret lives of her dancing delinquents, the film grows two left feet.
It's tough to say if Houston is just so out of touch that she's written cartoon lives for her young characters, or that the studio just likes things to play out as obvious as possible. Either way, "Lead" is a severe bore when the camera follows the kids to their homes. Houston attempts to address urban plights and familial abuse, but she brings nothing new to the table, and honestly, if you seen one African-American-teen-seduced-by-easy-money scene, you've seen them all. The cast doesn't help matters much, with half of them interesting acting amateurs (and ignored by Friedlander), and the rest far too rehearsed and most likely hired only for their dance abilities (including Dante Basco, Rufio from "Hook," who is 31 years-old playing 17!).
Antonio Banderas is the only cast member to emerge from the one-dimensional script unscathed, and that's only because he was born with an acting gift that allows him to say any line and appear as through he believes every word. Houston has written Dulaine as a complete saint, tirelessly looking to help these kids for no other reason but pure generosity. The script tries to give Dulaine some weight by including a dead wife and some speeches about helping kids feel good about themselves, but mostly he's there to referee the teenage shenanigans and to allow time for Banderas to bust a move of his own, which he accomplishes with immense grace. This is not a portrayal of a human being though: "Lead" practically gives Dulaine wings and a halo.
It's clear that "Take the Lead" is aiming for the "means well" category, looking to score an audience-pleasing hit for those that adore dance. But the victory is only halfway realized. Had Friedlander upped the body movement and lowered the urban melodrama, there might have been more magic to sing about.