Laura Clifford Robin CliffordStudious Katey Miller (Romola Garai, "I Capture the Castle") is uprooted from her St. Louis high school senior year when her dad Bert (John Slattery, "Traffic") takes a position with Ford in Havana. Although she's immediately tapped by the boss's son, James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson, "Tuck Everlasting") who wishes to pull her into his cliquish, hermetic country club life, Katey's eye falls on a poolside waiter, Javier Suarez (Diego Luna, "Open Range"), that James's type finds invisible. After coming across Javier sensually dancing in a public square, Katey secretly follows him into a world of "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights."
Not a sequel, but a 'companion piece', "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," while based on events in the life of choreographer JoAnn Jansen ("Along Came Polly") as an American teenager in 1958 Cuba, follows the same trajectory of sexual awakening and rebellion against social barriers as the 1987 original. With Puerto Rico convincingly standing in for pre-Castro Cuba and charismatic leads who learned to dance up a storm to Afro-Cuban and Latin music, this "Dirty Dancing" stays afloat until it sinks with cliched, perfunctorily relayed ideology and an unbelievably hokey wrapup.
Katey is pleased by the attention paid to her by James when she first wanders out by the luxurious Oceana Hotel's pool, but shocked by clique leader Eve's (January Jones, "American Wedding") racist treatment of a waiter. Javier is too proud to accept Katey's apologies, but her later interest in Cuban dancing piques his interest. Katey witnesses firsthand Cuban revolutionaries being terrorized by Batista's police and begins to understand the issues facing the struggling Suarez family, whose free-thinking father was executed by the regime.
During a country club date with James, Katey turns tables on the smirking girls of his crowd by announcing that they had decided to head to La Rosa Negra, a club Javier had told her featured Havana's best dancers. James is titillated by the undulating bodies and Javier pulls Katey onto the dance floor for a steamy twirl. Thinking he's hooked a live one, James makes unwanted advances in his car, but Katey flees and returns to Javier's more gentlemanly protection. With a double-barreled agenda, Katey convinces Javier to partner with her for Havana's biggest dance competition, held on Christmas and New Year's Eves at the plush Palace nightclub. Having hidden her budding romance with Javier from her parents, former ballroom champs themselves, imagine her conundrum when they announce that they will be going to the Palace on Christmas Eve - with James's family.
Garai does a nice job as the fresh-faced American girl who has hitherto ignored boys for books without succumbing to Pollyana-ish behavior. She has a natural chemistry with Luna, who manages to combine a decent sweetness with incipient Latin sexuality (Luna retains a boyishness in his mid twenties). These two deliver the real emotion of a first love while remaining good examples for the tweenie crowd (a love-making scene is implied late in the film but not shown). Sela Ward (TV's "Once and Again"), period perfect in Jackie-esque hair and makeup, is also strong as the conflicted mother who sees her lost dreams bloom in her daughter. Slattery is the perfect, understanding dad who has faith in his responsible daughter. Mika Boorem ("Hearts in Atlantis") is believable as little sister Susie, a link between Katey's liberal sensibilities and the in crowd Susie more naturally gravitates toward. Patrick Swayze once again is a hotel dance instructor, who encourages Katey to compete.
Screenwriter Boaz Yakin ("Uptown Girls") and Victoria Arch take the simple approach, but their dialogue runs out of steam and the actors can only do so much. When Javier states that he wasn't trying to win a contest during their first dance at La Rosa Negra, Garai spins her retort ('Oh, weren't you?') with just the right amount of challenging flirtation, but later exchanges between the two become almost silly when Yakin and Arch attempt to charge them with larger themes when the revolution succeeds - "Casablanca" this ain't. Jeannie Miller's embarrassed stab discussing James and sex with Katey feels true, though, and is beautifully intercut with scenes of Katey and Javier's secret dirty dancing. Entirely false is the ending, however, where the Millers cheer Katey and Javier on as king and queen of La Rosa Negra. Family wholesomeness and steamy nightclub dancing do not mix, especially in 1958, nor would the young lovers be likely to spend their last evening together with parents and siblings.
Director Guy Ferland's ("Telling Lies in America") choice of television friendly aspect ratio gives the initial impression of old snapshots. Production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski ("Dirty Pretty Things") attains a convincing impression of Havana, perhaps assisted by the tight shots used by director of photography Anthony Richmond ("The Man who Fell to Earth"), who keeps his focus intimately with the characters and the dance. The music is certainly danceable, although too many contemporary influences detract from the period feel. A couple of subtle placements of “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” along with Swayze's presence, brand the film.
Stumbling near the finale deducts points, but the good evocation of place, entertaining dancing and charismatic stars of "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" average out the score.
Robin did not see this film.
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