Once in a weird while, a movie mimics the flaws — and charms — of its protagonist’s journey to an uncanny degree. Like high schooler Quinn Ackermann, a two-left-footer who does a crash course in dancing in order to get into her first-choice college, “Work It” often feels like it too crammed in hopes of becoming a hit. Directed by Laura Terruso and written by Alison Peck (Alicia Keys is a producer), this fairly routine dance-off outing streams on Netflix starting Aug. 7.
Disney Channel-crafted pop star Sabrina Carpenter leads a cast packed with amiable lovelies, including Liza Koshy as best friend Jas, Jordan Fisher as Quinn’s love interest, and Keiynan Lonsdale as the haughty head of the high school’s championship dance team. Many of these actors have fans and social media followings made up of folks who won’t suffer genre fatigue after years of movies that have done this song-and-dance better.
A straight-A student, Quinn wants to attend her deceased father’s alma mater, Duke University, aka “the Harvard of the South.” On a campus visit, she lets slightly flighty admissions officer Ms. Ramirez (Michelle Buteau) believe that in addition to all her other extra-curricular successes, she’s on her high school’s championship dance team, the Thunderbirds. She also lets her mom believe her admission is a done deal. It’s not her finest moment but Quinn tries to refashion her lie into a truth by first trying out for the Thunderbirds, led by Julliard, who is attended to by two mean-girl minions. When that doesn’t work, Quinn drags best friend Jas — an exceptional Thunderbird dancer — along on what appears a fool’s errand: a new team.
The classmates they recruit reflect Quinn’s over-achieving research into winning teams as well as the filmmakers’ enthusiastic nods to genre. There’s “flipper” and lanky geek Robby G (Tyler Hutchings); goth rebel Raven (Bianca Asilo); underwhelming soccer player but terrific stepper Chris (Neil Robles); slinger of hot playlists DJ Tapes (Nathaniel Scarlette); and soc-media maven Priya (Indiana Mehta). Fisher steps up as Jake Taylor, the dreamy, wounded (literally as well as figuratively) former dancer and choreographer who declines to mentor these motleys, but can’t help himself. He’s destined to become teacher and love interest.
Many a montage later, the multi-racial crew (which never exactly agreed on a name) faces off with the Thunderbirds. Few of the lessons and triumphs of “Work It” will surprise, and some of the missed opportunities disappoint. Why set a movie so specifically in a place — North Carolina’s Triangle — and then assiduously avoid anything even vaguely Southern in the movie? And is it really OK to foreground a white protagonist, surround her with friends of color and not write more backstory and texture for these friends? In evading more contemporary concerns (and, yes, they’ve been timely for years), the director and screenwriter stumble some.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some sweet moments in “Work It,” and a winning turn by Carpenter. Among them: a couple of visits to the posh assisted living facility where Quinn volunteers; an even lovelier scene in which a street busking crew of break dancers with disabilities does its thing; a clever remix of a Gloria Estefan hit.
The dance-offs demand (and often deliver) the kinetic oomph that comes with a precise mix of choreography (courtesy Aakomon Jones of “Pitch Perfect” franchise), cinematography (Rogier Stouffers) and editing (Andrew Marcus). Costume designer Georgina Yarhi captures nicely “the work it, gurllll” brazenness of pink-haired Julian and his Thunderbirds, who flock around the high school halls in flamingo-hued satin sweat suits. And Quinn’s early ensembles (buttoned to the very top, oversized, blue oxford shirt) suggest a young woman who hasn’t yet made friends with her body.
Will dance change Quinn’s wardrobe and her still blossoming soul? “Work It” leaves little room to wonder but a few occasions to sit back and smile at the transformation.