Dancehall Queen: Jamaican Tale, Starring Audrey Reid

High spirited, energetic and colorful, the new Jamaican film, Dancehall Queen, is the story of a humble street vendor who finds an unusual way of getting her family out of the harrowing, violent-ridden ghetto she lives in. Emotionally engaging, if also too broad and simplistic, this contempo fairy tale boasts such an enchanting performance by Audrey Reid that it may warrant a limited theatrical distribution in major cities.

The film should also travel the festival road as an all-too-rare sampler from Jamaica, an entertaining movie that offers pulsing reggae music and scintillating sights of the vibrant island.

The structure of Dancehall Queen is that of a modern Cinderella story except there is no Prince Charming. The heroine is Marcia (Reid), a dynamic, strong-willed Jamaican who struggles to survive the raw and harsh ghetto life. Bringing up her two daughters as a single mom, she has come to depend on the shabby figure of “Uncle” Larry (Carl Davis), as she can barely manage a meager living as a street vendor.

However, Larry demands a return to his investment and the target is Tanya, Marcia’s adolescent daughter, who’s forced to repay his kindness with sexual favors. Things get worse, when Priest (Paul Campbell), a vicious thug, tries to kick Marcia out of her street-vending stall and set up shop there. In desperation, she turns to Mrs. Gordon (Pauline Stone-Myrie), the local dressmaker, and asks her to make her a sexually alluring costume for the contest of “Dancehall Queen.” At first, no one recognizes Marcia’s new identity, including Larry who’s enamored by her, and her very own children.

Rest of the juicy melodrama, which is presented with “big” emotions, as befit the characters, follows a familiar pattern. In her disguise as the “mystery lady,” Marcia manipulates Priest and Larry against each other. She then devotes her attention and full energy to winning the contest against a nasty competitor. In the rousingly upbeat ending, that for once is well earned, Marcia becomes the queen of the reggae-infused dancehall, gaining prize money and, more importantly, a respectable identity and sense of worth.

Dominating almost every scene, Reid is such a natural talent and photogenic presence that it’s amazing to read this film is her screen debut. The other thesps do their jobs proficiently, bringing verve to their roles, though the effect of Dancehall Queen goes beyond acting.

Realizing the importance of mood and authenticity, co-directors Letts and Elgood give their story an undeniable urgency and punch, unabashedly accentuating the broad conflicts and feelings. The film’s most distinctive element is Wally Badarou’s score, which is performed by a gallery of dancehall stars, including Beenie Man (who provides the title track), Bounty Killer, Lady Shaw, Junior Demus and Sanchez. The flashy dresses and multi-colored wigs add considerable color to the proceedings.

Dancehall Queen is an old-fashioned movie made straight from the heart.