I don’t think any of us are strangers to the arc of a dance movie. Usually it involves a dance competition or a showcase that would help the dancer achieve their dreams, the dancer needs to embrace something new and this leads them to a path of self-fulfillment. We see this in Step Up, Center Stage and Save the Last Dance.
Work It is slightly different, in the sense that Sabrina Carpenter’s Quinn isn’t a dancer. In fact, she is everything but a dancer. Quinn has worked hard to maintain a 4.0 GPA, and beefed up on her extra-curriculars, all for the opportunity to be a part of Duke University.
The problem comes into the picture when she has her early admissions interview, and the advisor feels she doesn’t really stand out, especially since there are a ton of other candidates who possess the same credentials. Work It isn’t the first Netflix teen movie to draw attention to this, with Sierra Burgess is a Loser and The Perfect Date also commenting on the difficulties faced by aspiring college students, where it seems that who they are isn’t enough. There is a need to chase all these accolades and achievements in order to stand out and be someone worthy of acceptance.
Quinn wants so desperately to be a part of Duke University that she lies to the admissions officer and claims she is a part of the dance team Woodbright High is known for. The dance team is led by Keiynan Lonsdale, who does a fantastic job as the queen bitch of the squad. The popular mean girl trope has been a thing in teen films ever since Regina George, and while Rachel McAdams did such a stellar job breathing substance and depth into a supposed plastic girl, no one has been able to truly own the role of mean girl – until now. Lonsdale truly works it in the role, and things always get more interesting when he’s on the screen.
The rest of the cast does an impeccable job as well, with Liza Koshy and Jordan Fisher particular stand-outs. Koshy, who is known mostly for her YouTube fame, is so effortlessly funny. There is a particular running gag involving a mattress store, and while the nature of the scene is enough to make anyone cringe, Koshy makes it hilarious fun. Jordan Fisher is so talented, and this movie lets him show off all those talents. He contributes to multiple dance sequences, one of his songs is in the film, and we are also reminded that Fisher plays the piano (something he also does in To All the Boys: P.S I Still Love You).
With all these fun, colourful characters, Carpenter’s Quinn does seem a little bland in comparison, but I suppose that’s the point. She never lets herself be moved by anything, and Carpenter truly fleshes out that transition for Quinn, to someone devoid of passion to a person who could feel strongly for something, even if she isn’t the best dancer around. This is what I love about this movie. It isn’t quick to label someone a non-dancer; dance is accessible to anyone who is willing to learn, and despite Quinn being the weakest dancer, they choreograph to her strengths instead of hiding her like she suggests.
The film isn’t without its issues though. The first half of the film is really strong; it’s funny and engaging and does a good job in setting up the main characters and their arcs. And then the second half hits, and things become more of a slog. Quinn’s conflict with her mom feels half-baked, the final dances aren’t as engaging as the earlier material, and Fisher’s Jake loses all sense of agency. I can’t help but think that the less than stellar second half is because of the generic plot points the film feels it needs to hit because it’s a dance movie. The second act offered Work It a chance to deliver something new in the genre, instead it goes on to tell a story that has been told many times before.
However, I do think it’s one of the better teen movies on Netflix, and the cast truly makes the movie worth your while. I had a ball of a time watching this, and I think you will too.
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Despite the lackluster second act, the film's talented cast more than makes up for the movie's shortcomings. It radiates a certain joie de vivre, and we could use more of that in 2020.
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