Musical Chairs: Film Review

Rom-com about wheelchair-bound dancers isn't derailed by formulaic script.

Strictly Ballroom by way of Murderball, Susan Seidelman's Musical Chairs is a fluffy disability-empowerment-themed romance set in the city where Seidelman made her name in the '80s. Lightweight but likeably uncynical, it could connect with some underserved audience demographics.

E.J. Bonilla plays Armando, a dance-crazed kid whose Puerto Rican-American mother (insisting "teaching rich old white ladies to tango is not work") is waging a botánica-aided campaign to marry him off with a cute neighbor and keep him working at the family's Bronx restaurant. But Armando swoons for Mia (Leah Pipes), whose boyfriend/competitive-dance partner runs the studio where he dances and does odd jobs.

When Mia is struck by a car and left in a wheelchair, that boyfriend vanishes -- leaving sweetly loyal Armando to convince her life isn't over. He learns of wheelchair dance competitions, where couples with one able-bodied partner bring surprisingly graceful moves to the ballroom floor, and hatches a plan.

Marty Madden's script is a by-the-numbers affair, too obvious in its adherence to tropes familiar from rom-coms and immigrant-family tales, and is especially clunky in depicting Armando's mother's effort to derail his romance with the white, disabled Mia.

But Seidelman smoothes over the screenplay's rough edges, assisted by a cast that, while sometimes lacking finesse, has a modest charm perfectly suited to the material. (Happy misfits in the supporting cast, including Laverne Cox's wheelchair-bound transsexual Chantelle, feel like links to the heterogeneous New York City of Seidelman's punk-era work.)

Dance sequences are well staged and varied, ranging from a lovely romantic moment in a therapeutic swimming pool to a climactic waltz whose mixed couples display enough flair to easily sell the film's themes.

Opens: Friday, March 23 (Paladin)
Production Company: Dream Dance Films
Cast: Leah Pipes, E.J. Bonilla, Pricilla Lopez, Jaime Tirelli, Laverne Cox, Morgan Spector, Auti Angel, Jerome Preston Bates, Nelson R. Landrieu, Angelic Zambrana
Director: Susan Seidelman
Screenwriter: Marty Madden
Producers: Janet Carrus, Joey Dedio, Marty Madden
Executive producers: Susan Seidelman, Jamin O'Brien
Director of photography: Stephen Kazmierski
Production designer: Susan Block
Music: Mario Grigorov
Costume designer: Kitty Boots
Editor: Keiko Deguchui
PG-13, 100 minutes