“Musical Chairs” has all the trappings of a standard dance-kid pic — the socioeconomically mismatched partners, the impending tournament, the preening rival dancer — but introduces two key twists: One of the dancers is confined to a wheelchair, and there’s surprisingly little dancing involved. This would-be inspirational pic has its heart in the right place, but with default-setting characters, loudly telegraphed emotional beats and lack of any real sizzle to enliven its maudlin moralizing, it all feels like a cursory run through a well-trodden routine. VOD is the logical next step after a brief theatrical run.
Directed by Susan Seidelman (“Desperately Seeking Susan,” TV’s “Sex and the City”), “Musical Chairs” is set in an appropriately colorful yet sanitized version of Gotham, and centers on a young Nuyorican dancer named Armando (E.J. Bonilla). Harassed by a harridan mother (Priscilla Lopez) and a big-haired potential girlfriend (Angelic Zambrana), Armando works as a maintenance man and substitute instructor in a Manhattan dance studio, where he keeps a wistful eye on uptown girl Mia (Leah Pipes), who is poised to break into the competitive ballroom-dancing circuit.
No sooner have we gotten a fleeting glimpse of Mia’s dancing talent than a car accident shatters her spine, and the setting shifts to a hospital ward, where she must learn to adjust to life in a wheelchair. Making daily visits to her bedside, Armando happens upon the idea of teaching Mia to dance in a wheelchair, a practice he assures her is very big in Europe.
Preparations to compete in New York’s first wheelchair dancing tournament dovetail with the pair’s budding romance, and Mia’s reliably oddball fellow patients (including a flamboyant black transsexual, a military-vet Murderballer and an Ally Sheedy-like goth girl) gradually join in on the training sessions.
Whatever the film’s failings, its central message is a fine one, and though it’s a resolutely paint-by-numbers affair, it never really professes to be otherwise. Yet it’s equally hard to defend its anemic treatment of the central wheelchair-dancing conceit. Considering none of the characters had even heard of such a thing at the start of the film, one would expect more detail on how a formerly perambulatory dancer and her inexperienced tutor might go about learning these techniques, yet Seidelman just gives us a simple training montage.
Acting, lensing and tech credits are all of an unobjectionable, unremarkable quality, with Bonilla showcasing an easygoing likability along with his adroit dance technique.