“Work It” knows its angles: Early in Laura Terruso’s fun-but-forgettable high school dance competition movie, one of its more engaging stars makes a joke about hopping into a time machine to scoop up a young Channing Tatum. If only! Tatum, of course, got his Hollywood start in his very own high school dance competition movie, “Step Up,” which not only launched his career but also a robust, multi-platform franchise. Terruso’s film isn’t exactly trying to be the next “Step Up,” but it winks toward one of the genre’s most popular entries and works overtime to keep pace.
Funnily enough, though, “Work It” is at its best when it’s not trying to imitate the beats of a genre that, while often entertaining, doesn’t provide much room for innovation beyond all that dancing. While there is comfort in the familiar, there’s also boredom, and anyone who has seen even one film centered on high schoolers dancing it up and making their way in the world (“Step Up,” “Bring It On,” “Save the Last Dance,” and the like) will know exactly where “Work It” is going. The expectations of the genre provide a framework for “Work It” that both delights (so many dancing montages! all of them fun!) and confounds (a chemistry-less romance). When it dares to break those boxes, however, things get miles more interesting.
Centered on good-natured geek Quinn Ackerman (Sabrina Carpenter) — the film opens with the high school senior quoting Albert Einstein, so you know she’s smart — “Work It” follows our clumsy heroine as she attempts to learn how to dance to … better her chances at getting into the college of her dreams? Clad in baggy sweaters and sporting a limp ponytail, Quinn is a total nerd who has dedicated her life to some serious academic pursuits, even as her high school brethren really only care about more physical shows of strength, like its award-winning dance team.
Quinn likes the team, which includes her very funny BFF Jas (Liza Koshy, the film’s undisputed breakout) and the very mean “Julliard” (Keiynan Lonsdale, playing a dancer so focused on his future that he only answers to the name of his chosen college), but she’s no dancer. But when a wacky college admissions counselor (Michelle Buteau, apparently starring in a much funnier, weirder film) advises Quinn that schools are looking for applicants who don’t just go outside the box, but “blow the box up,” Quinn gets trapped in a major lie. Suddenly, Quinn doesn’t just need to make the dance team — she also needs to get good enough at popping and locking that she can compete alongside them at the BIG! DANCE! COMPETITION! (which is, of course, called Work It).
Through a series of oddly convoluted complications, Quinn and Jas end up heading up a brand new dance team (sorry, Julliard!) that includes a wacky crew of characters, all of whom are deserving of more time and attention than “Work It” can give them. At least Quinn and Jas’ relationship gets some screen time, mostly bolstered by Koshy’s outrageously funny sense of humor, which often spins the film off into unexpectedly original directions. Less unique is Quinn’s involvement with Jake Taylor (Jordan Fisher, just as charming as he is in the “To All the Boys” franchise), who comes on board to choreograph the new team and (for some reason?) falls in love with Quinn in the process.
It’s a standard enough set-up, and while “Work It” never takes any risks with it, the film offers its own brand of wry humor (anything with Koshy is comic gold), finding amusement in even the most predictable of plot turns. It’s those wacky moments that make the film stand out, if temporarily, as Terruso mines her stellar young cast for jokes and gags that amp up the laughs and offer character insight in the process. Less successful are the more prescribed elements, including the inevitable third act break that briefly threatens the happiness of Quinn and her team (so poorly conceived, however, that this critic had to watch the big team bust-up three times to figure out just why everyone was so damn mad).
At least it’s more clear when Quinn makes the (again, inevitable) realization that maybe she really does love dancing, when she swaps her morning TED Talks for music (one thing “Work It” excels at: a stacked soundtrack of contemporary stars, from Dua Lipa to Big Freedia). Every beat of Alison Peck’s screenplay feels as choreographed as Jake’s (very good) routines, and though the film lacks the eye-popping punch of something like, yes, “Step Up,” it at least recognizes how to put together a believable bunch of newbies and turn them into a real team.
That’s the joy of any dance film, really, and one that “Work It” recognizes, even if it rarely ventures into fresh territory. Good luck not cheering when the group — who go by “TBD,” because they can’t think of anything better, only to realize that, yes, they are still “to be determined” — put on their final show and wow everyone in the process. It’s temporarily diverting, a stand-up-and-cheer moment that too soon moves right into sit-down-and-forget-about-it territory.
“Work It” will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, August 7.