Local interest should be high for this Asheville-produced film from executive producer Marion Douglas Williams and his screenwriter wife, Yvonne G. Williams. A great many Asheville-based films seem to go out of their way not to show the city in an identifiable manner. That’s certainly not the case with A Dance for Bethany, which showcases numerous city landmarks. All right, so the film plays a little fast and loose with the geography (I defy anyone to show me how you can walk from the Miles Building on Wall Street toward the Laughing Seed and take a sharp right into an alley), but that’s fair game in the movies.
The film is also notable as the best-looking locally based production I’ve seen so far. The cinematography by director Brian Gurley and James Suttles is very professional, and the lighting design is often very creative and good at setting the mood. Similarly, the production design by Gayle Wurthner is striking (where did she come up with that piece of René Magritte-inspired deck furniture?). All this is very much to the good, as is much of the acting, especially that of Robin Lively, Lori Beth Edgman and Ann Mahoney.
The story itself is certainly serviceable, given the film’s intent of raising public awareness of “human sex trafficking” (if there’s another kind, I’d as soon not know) in our country. I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity of the filmmakers’ intentions in this area, and I may simply not be the best audience for the approach, since I tend to be a little skeptical of films that want to preach to me. But if they are determined to do so, I insist they do it with some degree of believability. With that in mind, there are aspects of the script that I can only call corny and contrived (the ending is definitely too intent on tying up every possible thread of the narrative to an unlikely degree).
I have no intention of questioning the film’s claims that victims of the sex trafficking it indicts are forced to perform sex acts “30 to 40 times a day,” but they certainly fail to convince me that this is the lot of the title character (Edgman), who seems to have an awful lot of spare time for someone so industriously used. In fact, we see very little indication of her prostitution. This may be due to the fact that the filmmakers chose to go for a PG-13 rating, thereby broadening the audience, but limiting the grittiness required for the film to really strike the chord they were after. A scene of Bethany being brutalized by her pimps is similarly not terribly effective, for exactly the same reason.
On another score, the film is sometimes clunky and old-fashioned in its structure (nearly every scene ends on a fade-out), and there’s a tendency for the musical score to veer toward melodrama that ill serves the movie. On this level, A Dance for Bethany is no better or worse than your average Fox Faith offering, though considerably less overt in the religiosity department.
Now, all these reservations aside—and they are substantial—I’ll say that A Dance for Bethany is consistently entertaining, and that the characters are likeable enough to make the viewer care about their fates. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment in itself. Is it a great film? No. But it is definitely a solid, well-intentioned effort that’s worth the attention of anyone interested in the local film scene. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some sexual content and brief violence.