There's not quite as much desert and dancing as you might expect in Desert Dancer, an earnest and occasionally hokey drama about kids wanting to hoof it in a world that forbids all hoofin'. Since it's a based-on-a-true-story job, and since the killjoys this time are the Iranian government, much of its 110 minutes are given to rallies against that election-thief Ahmadinejad and to beatdowns of protesters by fundamentalist thugs. Amid such real-world turmoil, the usual dance-flick character drama feels stagey and small, with incidental obstacles too easily thwarted — at times, as the film's college-aged dancers rehearse and fall for each other and discover that in movement they at last have a voice, this could be Footloose II: The Town Wants a Nuke. When the dancing stops, the middle reels prove laborious, full of scenes whose every beat is a given: Will the secret underground dance squad assembled by Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie) dissolve into bickering or persevere? Will superbly talented ringer Elaheh (Freida Pinto) reciprocate Ghaffarian's affections? Will beauty-stomping regime bullies keep the kids from putting on their show?
One question that's a little more interesting: Will these Iranian characters ever stop explaining to each other — in English — the basics of Iranian life? "You see those men over there? They are the Basij, the morality police," Ghaffarian's mother warns, in a flashback. And here's Ghaffarian rhapsodizing about the abandoned factory where he and other University of Tehran students rehearse prickly modern dance in arresting montage: "Outside there are laws, commandments, and sins. In here I am free." Even the dialogue that's not about bringing Western audiences up to speed is amusingly stiff. "You know you're the best dancer in the group," Ghaffarian says. "But you can't dance if you're on heroin!"
The dancer he's beseeching can't perform in a narcotic stupor, of course. But this is a PG-13, so this addict's detox is handled in less screen-time than her audition piece. She's played by Pinto; that audition is a stunner, a raw marvel of stirring, searching movement.
The impulse behind all this simplifying is, perhaps, a noble one. How better to teach an international audience of English speakers that the Islamic Republic of Iran is not at all monolithic? Thirteen-year-old Americans will get it, and be dazzled and moved by Ghaffarian's passion — it helps that you could take the script and do a find-and-replace with "Iran" and "Random Y.A. Dystopia." What's tragic is that their parents might not be so open-minded — Sean Hannity could watch Ritchie's Ghaffarian dance out the horror, trauma, and anger of having been kicked nearly to death by regime brutes and then still squeak, "But has he denounced radical Islam out loud?"
The film plays too safe with its narrative. Fortunately, like its characters, it's most daring when it's in motion. Young Ghaffarian starts out with Michael Jackson moves, but his art, as he grows, leaves pop behind. A fine sequence finds him agog the first time he's in front of YouTube: He searches for Nureyev's pirouettes and then gorges on the history of modern dance, up through Martha Graham and Savion Glover. His own choreography, intense and autobiographical, is inspired by their breakthroughs. A long duel/duet between Ritchie and Pinto enlivens Desert Dancer's rote middle section: She holds her palm some six inches from his face, pressing toward him; he stares straight ahead but bends back, keeping that distance constant even when she reverses and brings her hand back toward herself — she's pulling and pushing him, and then he's pushing and pulling her, and because they are unmarried men and women in Tehran, the fact that they never quite touch feels momentous. Even in secret, without a hijab in sight, these two feel the world between them.
They reprise and expand upon that in the inevitable climactic public performance. How exactly they manage to present their art before a crowd in '09 Iran I'll leave to the film to reveal. (The title's a hint.) That sequence is also strong, despite some cheesy suspense concerning angry authorities' attempts to shut Ghaffarian down, but Desert Dancer peaks only after its natural endpoint. An extended coda finds Ghaffarian trying to pick up his life after his act of defiance has made him an enemy of the regime. What happens over the next 15 minutes could have made for a full feature in itself, one more compelling and surprising than this. There's one more dance to come, the film's most powerful, Ghaffarian's potent and heartrending solo memoir of all that Iran has done to him. Director Richard Raymond's movie doesn't fully measure up to the courage of its real-life subject, but it does honor Ghaffarian's art, which counts for something. Take a teenager or a Tea Partyer — then ask them to take a chance and watch an Iranian film rather than just a film about Iran.