Netflix has been delivering a steady stream of movies for young adults, and for the most part they can be sorted into two broad categories: dance, and the insanely high standards of college admissions. Every generation has a teenage dance movie. My mom had Footloose and Dirty Dancing; I grew up with Save The Last Dance and Bring It On, and Netflix has recently served the likes of Feel The Beat, which failed to get my toes tapping. Am I simply getting too old? I’m definitely feeling sorry for young people who have spawned the second teenage trope: the pressure to be perfect. And as Quinn discovers in Work It, sometimes being perfect isn’t enough. In fact, her dream school seems on the verge of rejecting her for being too good. First we exchange childhood for resume-building, time-sucking extra-curriculars, and now we fault them for it?
Quinn (Sabrina Carpenter) really wants to go to Duke. Or her mom really wants her to go to Duke. Or her dead dad really wants her to go to Duke. She’s assembled the perfect college admissions application, and now it’s both not enough but also too much and in any case, she doesn’t get early acceptance. The admissions officer isn’t impressed with all the perfectly checked boxes. She wants to see fire and passion and a willingness to disrupt. Rule following, Quinn is clearly not inclined to any of those things but she is surprisingly good at thinking on her feet and comes up with this juicy little lie: she claims to be on her high school’s nationally ranked dance squad, the Thunderbirds (as seen on Ellen!) (clearly this script was written before Ellen’s big fall from grace). Now all she has to do is make her lie the truth. Fool proof, right?
In fact, Quinn’s best friend Jasmine (Liza Koshy) is on that very dance team, aiming to be a professional dancer. She quite selflessly devotes hours to turning rhythmless Quinn into someone worthy of a Thunderbirds audition. There’s only one open spot on the dance team, and no matter how much dance-cramming Quinn does in the next 2 weeks, she’s never going to earn it even if captain Julliard (Keiynan Lonsdale) didn’t harbour a huge grudge against her, which he totally does. So wannabe disrupter Quinn forms her own dance team, claiming Jasmine as its captain and a bunch of other single-skilled classmates as filler on an already extremely lean team. Jasmine is obviously the world’s bestest friend ever and also incredibly stupid. She has single-mindedly pursued dance, has no fall-back whatsoever, and has now left the team that will guarantee the right scouts see her. Luckily Quinn is resourceful. She tracks down an old champ with something left to prove – Jake (Jordan Fisher) will make an excellent choreographer if only she can coax him out of hiding.
I feel like this movie should have annoyed the shit out of me like so many of its recent predecessors, but the truth is, it’s got some very likable leads in roles that feel grounded and more fully-realized than many similar movies have bothered with. I am not its target demographic but I suspect Work It is about to enjoy a wider audience because it gets the basics right and has personality even though it’s fairly predictable. Dance isn’t going to magically save anyone’s patootie but Work It does make a case for making a little time in all that parent-driven future-planning to just enjoy something for enjoyment’s sake. This generation are perhaps the least rebellious teenagers the world has ever seen. Their youth is micro-managed and filled to the point of bursting with activities and carefully curated recreation but no real leisure. If we’ve learned one thing from this pandemic, it’s that maybe slowing down a bit is not such a bad thing. It’s not going to be dance for everyone – maybe it’s even watching a dance movie on Netflix – but taking time out and time off are so important for well-being, and the pursuit of true passions is what replenishes us when the grind has been too much.