August 7, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Laura Terruso
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramedy film “Work It” has a racially diverse cast (white, African American and Asian) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A high-school senior, who’s an overachiever but a clumsy dancer, wants to win a group dance contest in order to impress a college admissions officer, so she recruits a group of misfits to train as dancers and dethrone the reigning champs.
Culture Audience: “Work It” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about students involved in dance contests.
Imagine a movie that takes almost every stereotypical plot in a teen movie and piles it on top of more clichés until it becomes a mindless mush of forgettable unoriginality. The result is the “Work It,” a dramedy that’s so derivative that even the movie’s title is recycled and bland. Directed by Laura Terruso and written by Alison Peck, “Work It” follows every formula of a teen dance movie to the point where people can predict what can happen even without seeing a second of this film. What saves “Work It” from being completely awful is much of the eye-catching choreography and the comedic talents of some of the cast members.
Here some of the high-school movie tropes in “Work it” that check a lot cliché boxes: Is there a nerdy protagonist who wants to transform into becoming more popular? Check. In “Work It,” she’s overachiever Quinn Ackerman (played by Sabrina Carpenter), a senior at the fictional Woodbright High School, which is located in an unnamed U.S. city. Quinn is consumed with her goal to get into Duke University, her late father’s alma mater.
Is there a big upcoming contest that will be a test of her popularity? Check. It’s the annual Work It dance competition, and Woodbright’s elite dance team the Thunderbirds are the reigning champs. Is there a sassy best friend who provides most of the comic relief? Check. She’s Jasmine “Jas” Hale (played by Liza Koshy), who is one of the best dancers on the Thunderbirds team.
Is there a villain? Check. The very arrogant captain of the Thunderbirds is Isaiah “Julliard” Pembroke (played Keiynan Lonsdale), who insists that people call him Julliard, because he’s convinced that he has what it takes to be admitted to this prestigious performing-arts college. Is there a love interest for the protagonist? Check. And is there a group of misfits who will band together with the protagonist to help her achieve her popularity goal? Check.
At the beginning of “Work it,” the conflict between Quinn and Julliard starts when Quinn, who has been a volunteer lightboard operator for the Thunderbirds, accidentally spills coffee on the lightboard during a Thunderbirds rehearsal. The accident results in a big electrical malfunction that singes the hair of one of the Thunderbirds named Brit Turner (played by Kalliane Bremault), who is one of Julliard’s fawning sidekicks.
Julliard storms into the studio control area with Brit and his other main sycophant Trinity (played by Briana Andrade-Jones), and rudely scolds Quinn about the mishap: “It is my responsibility to lead the team to a fourth consecutive victory!” Quinn makes a profuse apology and promises that the accident won’t happen again. But Julliard is not having it.
“Brit’s hair was singed,” he huffs imperiously. “She probably has to get bangs now, and she doesn’t have the face for it.” Julliard then haughtily fires Quinn by telling her, “You are banished from this room!”
Quinn’s feelings are hurt by the dismissal, but she has something bigger to worry about: her upcoming in-person interview with an admission officer at Duke University. Quinn, who narrates this film, explains in a voiceover that she’s fixated on attending Duke because her father was a Duke alum, and Quinn has happy memories of going to Duke football games and alumni events. Quinn says of Duke: “It feels like home—if you had a less than 6% acceptance rate.”
Quinn’s supportive mother Maria Ackerman (played by Naomi Snieckus) is equally enthusiastic about Quinn attending Duke. Maria and Quinn share a tendency to be worried, neurotic and over-prepared. They are both nervous wrecks by the time that Maria drives Quinn to Duke for Quinn’s interview.
At the interview, Quinn lists her qualifications for why she’s an ideal candidate for Duke: She’s a national Merit Scholar with a 4.0 GPA. She’s the student government treasurer at her high school. For extracurricular activities, she’s president of the school’s AV Club; she volunteers at a nursing home three days a week; and she plays the cello.
The Duke admissions officer Veronica Ramirez (played by Michelle Buteau) makes it clear to Quinn that she’s bored and unimpressed because other applicants have the same qualifications. Ms. Ramirez tells Quinn that they’re looking for risk-takers who are passionate about something, so Quinn blurts out that she really likes the Thunderbirds, who are the reigning champs of the Work It competition.
Ms. Ramirez comments that she loves the Work It competition, and she assumes that Quinn is part of the Thunderbirds dance team. Quinn doesn’t correct her and tell her the truth: That she’s not a dancer and she’s not even part of the Thunderbirds anymore as their lightboard operator.
But then, Quinn soon regrets this deliberate misleading, because Ms. Ramirez then excitedly tells Quinn that she’ll be at the Work It competition this year and that she looks forward to seeing Quinn there. The Work It contest happens before Quinn will find out if she got accepted into Duke, so she leaves the interview silently panicking over how she’s going to be able to get out of this big lie with the one person who can make or break her admission into Duke.
After thinking about writing an apology email confessing her lie, Quinn changes her mind and comes up with a desperate plan: She’ll learn how to dance in the few weeks left before the qualifying stage of the contest, audition for the Thunderbirds, and then get into the Work It competition as part of the Thunderbirds dance team. Quinn begs a reluctant Jas to be her dance teacher, by reminding Jas that Quinn has helped her with her academics, and it’s time to return the favor.
The big problem, of course, is that Quinn is an uncoordinated klutz. Quinn also wants to dancer/choreographer Jake Taylor (played by Jordan Fisher), who’s a few years older than she is, to coach her. Jake was expected to make it big as a dancer after a won a major dance contest, but his dance career was cut short after he got an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, and he disappeared from the professional dance scene.
Of course, Quinn tracks him down, and finds out that he’s been making a living teaching elementary-school-aged kids how to dance. Jake still has a lot of talent, but the injury has shaken his confidence in becoming a professional dancer again. Quinn shows up unannounced at one of his classes and tells him that she wants him to teach her how to dance and she won’t take no for an anwer. He’s annoyed and amused by Quinn’s persistence and basically tells her to go away. But since he’s Quinn’s obvious love interest, this won’t be the last we see of Jake in this story.
Quinn’s audition for the Thunderbirds goes as badly as you think it does. Julliard gets a big laugh over Quinn’s humiliation, especially when she begs him to join the team. He sarcastically suggests that maybe Quinn should start her own dance team. And you just know she does.
Quinn’s first recruit is Jas, who’s reluctant at first to quit the Thunderbirds. But Julliard treats everyone on the Thunderbirds team like crap, so it isn’t long before Jas is all-in for Quinn’s team. Quinn can’t think of an official name, so she calls the team TBD—as in, to be determined.
And this is where the misfits come in: One by one, Quinn convinces other unlikely students at the school to join her team. Raven (played by Bianca Asilo) is a pessimistic Goth girl who likes to dance to heavy-metal songs for videos that she puts on social media. Chris Royo (played by Neil Robles) is a social outcast on his soccer team, but he has good rhythm. Quinn appeals to Chris’ ego by telling him that he’ll be more appreciated on her dance team than on the soccer team.
DJ Tapes (played by Nathaniel Scarlette) is a dancer who seems to be straight out of the ‘80s, with a boombox and hip-hop breakdancing style. Robby G. (Tyler Hutchins) is a tall, thin dorky type whose claim to fame is he was once seen doing a back flip. Quinn tracks him down at a karate dojo. Priya Singh (played by Indiana Mehta) is a sarcastic roller skater, who has a knack for twirling, so she’s enlisted for the dance team too.
“Work It” has the expected montages of Quinn and the rest of her motley crew being terrible dancers (except for Jas), with the expected clumsy falls and uncoordinated moves, with Quinn being the driving force for them not to give up. There’s also a running joke in the film that Jas has a crush on a hunky guy named Charlie (played by Drew Ray Tanner), who works as a salesman in a mattress store. And so, there are multiple scenes of Jas engaging in all sorts of hijinks (including asking Charlie to “spoon” with her on a bed mattress), in order to get his attention.
Koshy is one of the few bright spots in this dreadfully predictable film. Even though she and the other cast members have a lot of cringeworthy dialogue, Koshy’s comedic timing and facial expressions show that she has real knack for bringing a humorous flair that can elevate some horrible screenwriting. She’s a bit of a scene stealer. Lonsdale also looks like he’s having funny playing a flamboyant villain, even if the role at times veers too much into some stereotypical tropes that male dancers have catty, effeminate qualities.
Carpenter is just fine in her role as Quinn, the story’s heroine, although she’s played the “good girl” many times before on screen, so it’s not much of an acting stretch for her. As for Fisher, he is charming enough in his role, but his Jake character is written as kind of a blank slate, with no sense of who his family or friends are.
The chemistry and dancing between Carpenter and Fisher are fairly tame (this movie is no “Dirty Dancing”), as is most of the film’s humor. However, there is one scene where a male dancer’s erection is played for cheap laughs. The target audience for this movie is obviously kids in the age range of 12 to 17, so the erection scene is this movie’s way of being “edgy” for this type of audience.
Most of this movie’s attempts at humor fall flat and have very cheesy lines. For example, when Quinn and her dance team decide to go to the nursing home where she volunteers, so that they can practice in front of a live audience, the only person who’s in the audience is a nursing home resident, who ends up dying during the performance. Priya says as the man’s corpse is being taken away in an ambulance: “I’m pretty sure the key to a live audience is keeping them alive.”
The movie’s dancing and choreography are very “So You Think You Can Dance.” There are some eye-catching moments, but nothing that will make “Work It” a classic dance film. The movie’s soundtrack is also a predictable collection of pop tunes, including Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart,” Normani’s “Motivation,” Ciara’s “Thinkin Bout You,” Meghan Trainor’s “Treat Myself” and Zara Larsson’s “WOW.”
All the energy put into the dance numbers still can’t erase the fact that “Work It” is hopelessly lazy when it comes to the generic way that the story is told. The only steps that this vapid movie seems concerned with are those that move from story cliché to story cliché.
Netflix premiered “Work It” on August 7, 2020.