I forgot to post this during Palm Springs… a lovely little write up in the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News. If you haven’t seen the film, beware: SPOILER ALERT!
These days, dancing is all the rage. "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance?" are among television’s highest rated shows, bringing some of the world’s top performers into our living rooms. But where are the same-sex couples on these shows?
Anyone who thinks that all (or even the majority) of the dancers (not to mention the choreographers and judges) on these shows are straight is deluded. The dance world is notoriously gay, but for some reason the television community likes to pretend it’s not.
Enter "Leading Ladies" (USA, directed by Daniel Beahm and Erika Randall Beahm), a delightfully fluffy film about two very different sisters, their stage mom from hell, and their gay best friend.
Older sister Toni (Laurel Veil) is the classic tomboy wallflower, working double-shifts at the local pizzeria. Younger sister Tasi (Shannon Lea Smith) is the bell of the ball, an engaging but neurotic competition dancer who can’t seem to fit into new her fuchsia sequined gown. Both girls, it seems, are keeping a secret: dancer Tasi is pregnant with twins, and tomboy Toni is a lesbian.
The young sisters’ lives are dominated by their overbearing mother, former dancing queen turned stage mom from hell Sheri (real-life ballroom diva Melanie LePatin). Sheri, who could easily give Mama Rose a run for her money, is perennially focused on molding perky, younger daughter Tasi into a champion performer.
Tasi’s wickedly gay dance partner Cedric (swing-dance superstar Benji Schwimmer) wages an ongoing and vociferous battle against Shari’s control. Toni, meanwhile, serves as peacemaker, stand-in dance partner, and family breadwinner.
The story takes flight when Cedric drags spinster-in-the-making Toni to the local LGBT swing dance club. (If only there really were gay bars like this.) Toni, ill-dressed for the occasion but still fetching, is stumbled upon, literally, by energetic swing neophyte Mona (Nicole Dionne). What Mona lacks in dance knowledge, she makes up for in sultry perkiness. (Is that a real thing: “sultry perkiness”?) Toni succumbs to Mona’s charms, and for the first time in her life she both looks and is happy.
Unfortunately, not all is well in the family. Complications ensue when Toni is unwilling to come out, and when Tasi’s buns in the oven begin to noticeably rise. Eventually, with Tasi sidelined, Toni is enlisted for the upcoming dance competition. Surprisingly, she agrees, but only if she can choose her own dance partner—Mona, of course. Shari is not thrilled by this, and neither are the judges at the dance competition, but everything works out in the end.
The film’s dual love-story/dancing plot is engaging, the characters are likable, and the script is reasonably witty—even if the lines are not always delivered with the sparkle they deserve. The movie’s main appeal, however, is the dancing. Cedric, played by US and World Champion swing dancer Benji Schwimmer, is worth the price of admission all by himself. His same-sex West Coast Swing routine in the local gay dance club is jaw-dropping. But the terrific choreography doesn’t stop there. Early on, Toni and Tasi brush their teeth in a cleverly conceived, wonderfully shot bathroom pas de deux, and rehearsal scenes are also enjoyable.
Most of the dance numbers occur in naturalistic settings with the dancing linked to the story and milieu. The lone exception to this, and the film’s dance highlight, is a full-blown Broadway caliber showstopper in the local grocery store.
After Sheri has exiled herself to the bedroom, no longer cooking for her daughters, Mona and Cedric lead the supermarket virgin sisters on a food buying spree. The imaginative song-and-dance piece centers around Tasi’s insecurity about her burgeoning belly. She complains that everyone wants a piece of her while high-kicking shoppers and store employees grope her tumescent tummy. It’s wonderfully fun.
In one sense, "Leading Ladies" is an old-fashioned dance-musical, complete with family strife, a comedic foil, and a love story that overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In another sense, it’s a retelling of the standard ugly duckling/beautiful swan transformation tale.
In yet another sense, it’s a relatively straightforward lesbian coming out film. In the end, though, Leading Ladies is a lighthearted, well-intentioned, enjoyable film that will appeal to not only lesbians but gay men, and, perhaps more importantly, to mainstream filmgoers.