All a “Step Up” television show has to do, really, is deliver the dance. The multi-installment, multimillion-dollar franchise that launched the career of Channing Tatum is mostly an excuse for dance numbers, with some melodrama grafted on top for plausible transitions. That might sound like a bad thing, but far from it: The dance film subgenre is sacrosanct, one that marries passion for the form with teenage cultural commentary. Sure, sometimes they are a bit flimsy — if only because it takes maneuvering to concoct conflict that can be resolved through dance — but their earnest love for blended forms, and the genre’s faith in finding common ground through performance, is genuinely timeless.
“Step Up: High Water” does deliver the dance, in the form of yet another set of young, talented performers. But as an added bonus, it has also built a heartfelt premise for its two protagonists, twins Tal (Petrice Jones) and Janelle (Lauryn McClain) Baker. Tal, an out ballet dancer, illustrates on the side. Janelle, a hip-hop cheerleader, hopes to get to college on a dance scholarship. But the brother and sister are forced to relocate and start over when their mom relapses into her drug addiction and lands in prison. They have to move from their suburban enclave of Ohio to the outskirts of Atlanta — leaving their home, changing schools, and abandoning their dance academy. Worst of all, they have to work shifts at their uncle Al (Faizon Love)’s chicken wing joint. (It is called “Al’s Wigs and Wangs.” “Wangs” are an artistic license with the word “wings’; the wigs, you can buy from the back door.) But when the twins learn about a free performing arts school run by the famous musician Sage Odom (Ne-Yo), they begin to plot a future beyond what life has dealt them.
And that’s barely the beginning of the drama.
“Step Up: High Water” demonstrates assured confidence at balancing the darker parts of its storytelling with lighthearted comedy; the shift from the twins’ mom getting arrested to Love’s truly hilarious performance as Al is both lightning fast and surprisingly deft. Similarly, McClain and Jones have a naïve naturalism to their performances that indicates proficiency with establishing teen dynamics; the two are endearing, especially with each other. And, refreshingly, the plot has some real grit: The choices the kids have to make are truly complicated, not just teen-drama complicated. Early on, both Tal and Janelle crush on the same guy — Dondre (Marcus Mitchell), a neighbor with a slightly suspicious amount of cash. Janelle’s scholarship to Ohio State is in question with her forced relocation, because she can’t afford out-of-state tuition; Tal, forced into the closet by his unaware uncle, becomes the target of vicious bullying at school. And the High Water kids, all talented dancers, are cliquish and competitive. The protagonists are dancers, but they are also at the mercy of the booby-trapped environment they’ve relocated to — a situation, and an atmosphere, that “Step Up: High Water” explores with sensitivity.
Of course, it is a teen soap, and that means the character dynamics rearrange and evolve at a hummingbird’s pace. It’s fine with the teenagers, who are mercurially declaring feuds and making love whenever they’re not dancing. But when the adults start to become involved in the show’s lens, it loses some of its reckless charm. High Water’s founder Sage has funding problems, and his relationship with the school’s chief administrator Collette (Naya Rivera). Local strongman East-O (R. Marcos Taylor) plays the moneylender everyone’s afraid of, and naturally, there’s a love triangle. They’re all fine, but they don’t have the energy and chemistry of novices Davis (Carlito Olivero) and Odalie (Jade Chynoweth). Both Olivero and Chynoweth have their own Internet followings already, with good reason: They leap off the screen.
A dance television show can’t be a dance movie, no matter how hard it tries; the arc of a 90-minute conflict and resolution is much harder to chart over 10 hourlong episodes. But this YouTube Red original has found an intriguing way to blend the mediums of dance, film, and soapy teen television, with an energetic, conscious new installment in the series that is a lot of fun to get sucked into.