Irish eyes

Ireland's politics color Mad About Mambo

?Opens Aug. 4

Just as the box step provides the foundation for the more complicated steps in ballroom dancing, the soul-mates-from-opposite-sides-of-the-tracks template is the foundation for teen romance movies. The stuff of Romeo & Juliet (and Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful), it makes for compelling drama. What makes the familiar premise refreshing is seeing to what extent the varying circumstances of historical context affect the basic, underlying conflict. Screenwriter John Forte (With Or Without You) makes his directorial debut with Mad About Mambo, a teen romance about kids from opposite worlds in Belfast, Ireland. What makes Mad About Mambo worth watching, besides the dancing, is the degree to which the characters are hemmed in by the political, social and economic conditions of North- ern Ireland so that every decision becomes weighted with a kind of irrevocable gravity.

In working-class West Belfast, under the watchful eye of Catholic school teachers and armed policemen who patrol the streets, young Danny (William Ash) dreams of becoming a professional footballer (soccer player). Determined to improve his skills and inspired by his hero, Carlos Rega, the Brazilian soccer player (read: Catholic) recently acquired by Ireland's national (read: Protestant) team, Danny decides that what he needs is rhythm, so he takes up the samba, a dance native to Carlos' country.

Danny's quest for self-improvement takes him out of his element and into upper-class Belfast, where he falls in love with Lucy ("Felicity's" pussycat Keri Russell), a spoiled Daddy's girl who wants to prove she can make it on her own by winning the Regional Latin Dance Finals. Each with something to prove, Danny and Lucy draw and repel each other like human-sized magnets and make for sweet eye candy.

Although Lucy circulates among aristocratic Protestants, whose lives of inconsequential privilege are a far cry from the armed streets of West Belfast, she is only one generation removed from the hardship and oppression of being a working-class Catholic. Her father, Sid, owns a do-it-yourself outlet store and drives a Rolls Royce, but he's a self-made man who worked his way up from the poverty of West Belfast and displays the ostentatious aesthetics of the nouveau riche. "I'm their worst nightmare — a Catholic with money!" he snorts. Danny finds an ally in Lucy's father, who sympathizes with the youngster and gives the boy's dreams the legitimate stamp of ambition. With Sid's help, Danny increases his chance of getting the girl and making it to the big leagues.

But there are stumbling blocks along the way, naturally. An encounter with Carlos demystifies the glamour of being a professional soccer player. "I hate this job," Carlos tells Danny, who's just gotten his "big break," scrubbing floors and cleaning urinals at the soccer stadium. "The money's shit; this team is shit." So is, it would seem, any hope of wooing Lucy, who's left Belfast and her father's business to follow her snobbish, Protestant boyfriend to college in Oxford. Waking up to a world that doesn't play fair, Danny's worship of the Brazilian soccer player is exposed as nothing more than empty idolatry of a cardboard figure, and his love for Lucy now seems more impossible than ever.

Accepting the harsh reality of pursuing a professional career as a footballer, Danny focuses instead on the fulfillment of Lucy's dream - to prove herself as a dancer — and plots to bring her back to Belfast.

A feel-good film by virtue of Danny's irrepressible Irish optimism, Forte champions those who, though humbled by an adverse reality, persist in the pursuit of their dreams, one step at a time.