The popularity of the youth dance film Stomp the Yard (the top film in North America) is a feat many reviewers and editors would rather ignore. Although it was screened for the regular critic markets, following the film’s first weekend Rotten Tomatoes counted only half as many reviews written for Stomp the Yard compared with the number written for Alpha Dog—a film playing on half as many screens. Stomp the Yard may not be good, but it is significant. It joins brethren hits such as You Got Served, Save the Last Dance, Drumline and Step Up, most of which were also ignored by the “liberal” press, which wants nothing to do with “black” movies when they aren’t Oscar heavyweights such as Ray and Dreamgirls.
It’s time for film journalists to assume their duties as cultural commentators. The impact of the urban dance genre can no longer be ignored. The youth-market appeal of Stomp the Yard lies in its balance of coming-of-age drama with the MTV vogue of its dance competitions. It’s an inspirational sports movie with the full requirement of young romance, angst and hot bods.
A hip energy is established in the opening dance-off as rival teams display their acrobatics. It’s telling that protagonist DJ (Columbus Short) later describes dance as a form of battle: Director Sylvain White shoots the opening with the hand-held look and choppy edits of the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan.
But it’s a thrill the movie never matches again. As DJ struggles to deal with the murder of his brother (Chris Brown) he’s given a chance to begin anew at an Atlanta University. DJ joins a step-dancing fraternity and steals a rival rich kid’s girlfriend (Meagan Good). What tries to carry Stomp the Yard isn’t the dance scenes, but DJ’s efforts to curb his arrogance while facing a pecking order he doesn’t believe in. It’s a worthwhile focus that White and screenwriter Robert Adetuyi don’t see through. White’s parallels between the dance fraternity’s struggle and major figures in black history are unearned: They trivialize the film’s aim of youthful empowerment.
What would the rich, white, aspiring thugs in Alpha Dog make of Stomp the Yard? The most revealing moment of Nick Cassavetes’s crime bio comes when a kid establishes his cred against a gangsta rap video by saying, “The only thing these guys are shooting is music videos.”
Inspired by the true case of Jesse Hollywood, he’s brought to the film in the guise of Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsh). Truelove is having a personal war with Jake (Ben Foster), who owes him $1,200. On a whim, Truelove and some friends kidnap Jake’s younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). Recognizing the gravity of their situation, the young men realize the only way out of it is to kill their hostage.
The value of a movie dramatization of an appalling crime is that, done well, the depravity affirms our own humanity. That’s why it’s better to be shocked than to feel nothing at all. It’s a question of intention that Cassavetes stumbles on frequently. The opening credits are childhood home videos set to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—Hollywood sentiment at its most dishonestly manipulative. What Cassavetes gets right is how young bravado—not machismo—often wards off feeling by fetishizing heartlessness. Alpha Dog shows how knowledge of an impending horror peels away at protective shields: It weighs the impact of loss.
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