The club where Honey Daniels (Jessica Alba) tends bar pulses with pink and blue lights. The camera that takes you inside during Honey‘s first instants swoops and zips, all skewy angles and awesome skids-to-stops. And the music, so trendy it’s anti-trendy. As Honey heads to the dance floor, Erick Sermon’s “React” booms, Redman forever not understanding the Indian chorus: “Whatever she said, then I’m that.”
For Honey, the scene is all good. When she dances, her loyal best friend Gina (Joy Bryant) announces, “You got talent. You should ball it up and sell it.” Honey knows it: she bumps, she leaps, she breaks, and then the overhead camera catches her bustin’ a Busby Berkeley-looking move. She’s so good that local hoochie mama Katrina (Ann Gibson) just has to challenge her, all thrusting pelvis and daunting breasts. And still, Honey beams and giggles, exiting the club with Gina to find a crew of youngsters spinning on their heads, popping elbows and necks. When she spots Benny (Lil’ Romeo), and his adorable little brother Raymond (Zachary Isaiah Williams), Honey’s smitten. Benny’s got moves. Or, as she tells him, “Ya flava’s hot!”
And yes, that would be your own Dark Angel, slanging like a pro. She’s also probe to biting, demonstrated when she’s called on to choreograph a music video and, stuck for an idea, borrows one of Benny’s. He’s not mad at her though. He’s got another role in Bille Woodruff’s first feature film, which is to motivate Honey’s moral maturation. Which would be, of course, the reason you’d go see this so-called “hiphop Flashdance.”
This approximate character development involves a flurry of supporting characters and subplots, among them Honey’s romantic travails, Gina’s jealousies, and Benny’s drug-dealing. On this last point, see especially, Honey’s trip to juvey, where he shuffles out to the visiting room in his orange jumpsuit and she reminds him that maybe his friends, those boys who “got your back,” haven’t been to see him like she has. Hmm, the wheels turn in his little head, maybe she’s onto something. And with that, Benny’s ready to throw in with Honey, to help her put on a show, purchase a dance center, and save all the neighborhood kids (by way of explaining moves he’s learned in lockdown, he adorably tells her, “I believe in making every experience educational”).
Honey’s selection of her correct route is preordained, even if she doesn’t see it as readily as you do. At first, she spends some minutes pursuing the slick hiphop music video dream—dancing with chairs and in short shorts, slithering alongside Jadakiss and Sheek, attracting the lusty attentions of a white music video director, Michael Ellis (David Moscow). When he hires her to choreograph his videos for fancy-schmancy artists like Tweet and Ginuwine, Honey has to figure out how to translate her inner rhythms to fly four-minute spreads, including backup dancers in white furry vests.
Stymied for a minute, she frowns and cocks her hip. Michael flounces off, demanding, “Fix it!” What to do what to do? She breaks for lunch, and while peering through the chain link fence from her table, she peeps several ballers on a court, and she steals their moves—mime-dribbling and mime-dunking. Following, she cribs a step from some jump-roping girls. Damn! This girl is street! The vid is a hit and she’s in demand. And she doesn’t even have to rip her sweatshirt.
Potential bad choices loom, as they do in such movies, but not to worry. Though the white creepster comes on strong, Honey falls instead for the nice guy—for real!—Chaz (Mekhi Phifer). A barber who inherited his shop from a mentor and who honestly loves to cut heads, Chaz is a useful model for Honey, who, following some swank photo-ops with Michael, needs to remember just what it is that makes her “happy.” As Chaz thinks back on his own childhood, noting that old friends are in jail or dead, he helps to steel Honey for her struggle (this even as he notes, somewhat thoughtfully, “This is bad date talk!”). Yes, she thinks, she’ll rescue Benny from his burgeoning thug life (“What it is!” as he’s encouraged by his buddies). And yes, she’ll stay in town to save the kids, rather than moving on, as her long-time resentful rec-center-running mother (Lonette McKee) so wants her to do.
As corny as all this sounds—and is—the film remains watchable in the ways that delightful musicals tend to be, that is, in the obvious care lavished on the dance sequences. You endure cute plot turns and preposterous coincidences (Honey happens by a new warehouse location just when she needs one, Chaz happens by just as she’s being threatened on a street corner by Benny’s thug mentor) to arrive at most welcome narrative breaks, the film’s raison d’être, namely, the numbers.
Not every one of these is perfection. The early numbers especially deploy rote shoulder-slunks and group kicks. And while it’s good to see Tweet descend to her dance set by harness, it’s better when Honey finds her stylish stride, abandoning the leather-pantsed, bare-midriffed booty-shakers for “kids” with throwback jerseys and hiphop notions. This aesthetic decision looks to recent video choreographies for Missy Elliot, who shows up here briefly to dis Mr. Michael Ellis and insist on the services of you know who: “I said I want Honey Daniels! What you gonna do?”
Missy’s appearance instantly energizes the proceedings, making you eagerly awake her return, and get to thinking, as your mind wanders over the film’s remaining minutes, that maybe this is what Honey wants—to be a really long Missy Elliot video, with one innovative break after another.