Alright, so I’ve just watched the new Sabrina Carpenter and Jordan Fisher movie Work It and I have to say that I liked it. The dance is good, the chemistry is good, the humor could be better but some jokes were really funny. There’s just one problem with it: it’s riddled with dance movie tropes.
And this makes the movie predictable. So predictable that I had the feeling that I had already watched it many many times.
The thing is, recently dance movies, just like biopics, seem to force themselves to follow some pre-established patterns (aka tropes). They make the movie cohesive and easy to follow, but they’re only enjoyable the first time you encounter them. After 300.000 Step Up movies about star crossed lovers who want to dance I started to get a little bit tired.
So here’s my take on what Work It does well with the most common dance movie tropes and how, at times, it leans into the same old formula a bit too much.
Rival dance crew
Every movie needs a villain, right? And this villain is the most common among the dance movie tropes that I’m going to talk about: the evil rival dance crew.
Our protagonist has finally formed a crew and they’re ready to shock everyone with their skills on the dance floor. But wait, they’re not alone. Here comes a crew with better costumes, better training, better-looking people, and a better reputation. Will our underdogs manage to win and make their dreams come true?
Since most dance movies rely on a competition to carry the plot, it’s only natural that the rivals of our heroes will be assigned the role of the villains. However, it’s not always the same in any dance movie.
Sometimes they are cartoonishly evil and actively sabotage the crew, sometimes they are not evil just way better than the protagonists, sometimes they will join the protagonist after bonding over their shader passion for dance.
The only thing that this dance movie trope is consistent with is the fact that they are “better”. Obviously, if the rivals of the main characters sucked and got eliminated in the first round the movie would lack conflict. So it’s just logical that they would need to be good enough to pose a threat.
But why stop there when you can make them so incredibly good that our heroes seemingly can’t stand a chance?
In Work It, that is the case for the Thunderbirds. They’ve won the championship 4 times, they’re the most popular people in school, they have money for matching clothes and fireworks, they’re all ridiculously attractive, and they have years of experience.
Our heroes, the TBDs don’t even have a name. So it’s safe to say that they are the underdogs.
The funny thing about Work It though, is that while it follows the rigid structure and convention of the classic dance movie, at times it manages to subvert those tired tropes.
The TBDs technically don’t have to beat the Thunderbirds. All they have to do is participate in the competition and be good enough to get Quinn into Duke and Jas into the New York Dance Academy.
Basically, the movie could teach the audience a lesson by showing that sometimes the underdogs can’t win, and that it’s ok.
The diligent work and strong presence of the Thunderbirds has gotten them to a professional level, but the passion and persistence of the TBDs brought them far enough to be able to compete with the best of the best.
Unfortunately, this interesting premise is ruined by the Thunderbirds actively sabotaging their rivals and by the ending.
Not every dance movie villain has to be an a-hole, especially if they are more skilled than the protagonist. They can just be naturally competitive (as dancers are in real life) but good people who want to win without cheating.
The TBDs win the competition stealing the championship from the Thunderbirds. Despite being late, despite breaking the rules, despite being new to the competition. They win. They didn’t HAVE to win. But they do.
Dance is freedom
I know it sounds weird, but there aren’t many dance movies with protagonists who dance just because they like to do it. Sure the protagonists love what they do (and probably get a speech about how much they love it) but the driving force behind their actions isn’t just passion.
The most famous dance movie trope is “the big competition” that the protagonists will have to win, and our heroes don’t enter this competition because it’s fun to compete. There’s always a cash prize, a prestigious school, a talent scout, a rivalry, or anything else that will give them an excuse to dance.
And at the end of the day, their hard work is repaid.
Work It does the same thing (with Quinn creating the TBDs for her own gain) but ends up subverting this particular trope by having the hyper-focused protagonist learn that she can dance just for the joy of it. Even if it’s not “productive”, even if it disrupts her precious schedule.
There is usually a time limit for the protagonist who has to learn to dance. It’s the deadline for a recital, the final stage of the dance competition, the day of the fundraising, the interview with the recruiter, etc…
In screenwriting terms: there’s always a ticking clock. A time limit for the protagonist to reach his goal that is established early on in the story.
The ticking clock in Work it is the finale of the big dance competition. It will determine whether or not the TBDs will win and also if Ms. Ramirez (the admission lady) will let Quinn into Duke university or not. However, Work It does something different with it’s ticking clock.
One of the dance movie tropes that annoy me the most is the “this is a life or death situation” dialogue. The characters are aware of the time limit they have, and they DO NOT WANT YOU TO FORGET ABOUT IT.
Every five minutes there’s a character that goes “Guys, we need to take this seriously or we’re screwed”. Then after a bad rehearsal or a minor setback, someone else says “This is the last chance we will ever have”. Someone will interrupt a conversation with a “Come on! We can’t waste any time”. And finally, there’s the obligatory teary-eyed heart-to-heart between the two leads where one of them goes “If we don’t get this… I’ll give up on dancing forever”.
The ticking clock can be a very powerful tool if used properly. It establishes that there’s tension and forces the protagonists to do their best in a limited period of time. But very often it becomes one of those tired dance movie tropes that have the opposite effect.
Instead of creating tension and make the audience care, it becomes annoying to hear the character repeat over and over that “There is no time”. Rather than bringing up the best in a protagonist, the stress turns them into a-holes who mistreat everyone else but are “justified” because their passion for dancing is what makes them act this way.
Work It, despite having a ticking clock, doesn’t beat you in the head with monologues about how important it is to win. There is the occasional line like “We’re screwed” but what the movie really focuses on is not the dance competition but Quinn’s obsession with Duke.
Her friends keep asking her why she is so fixated with it and telling her that it’s just a school and that her quest for perfection is a little absurd. This is a nice way to tie in the theme of the movie and eliminate the artificial urgency that many other dance movies create.
Sheltered girl: privileged and stiff lead (usually female) who needs to learn the art of dancing (or a specific genre that is alien to her) in order to be happy. She will gradually learn to appreciate dance and become more relaxed and confident in the process.
In Work It, this role belongs to Quinn Ackerman. She is smart and determined but she’s also a bit of an overachiever who can’t think outside the box. She begins a journey of discovery through dance that ends with her learning the valuable lesson that she should enjoy life more instead of calculating every move.
Tough guy: he is usually older and/or more experienced than the lead. He has a hard time opening up because of some past trauma or because of prejudice, but he and the Sheltered girl will learn to communicate through dance and maybe fall in love.
That’s Jake Taylor, a famous and talented dancer that gave up his dreams after an injury. He is older than Quinn and the TBDs, has lots of experience with dancing and is confident in his own talent. By teaching the crew the basics and getting to know Quinn his old passion for dance is reignited.
The Friend: this is the classic character who’s purpose in the story is to provide som conflict / advance the plot / be the confidant of the protagonist. They might encourage the two leads to get together or to follow their dreams of dancing.
Liza Koshy I mean Jasmine. She is Quinn’s childhood friend who teaches her the basics of freestyle dance and helps her throughout the movie. She is the comedic relief character who makes sarcastic comments about what is going on in the story.
The Judge: it might be the judge of the competition that the leads are participating in, a teacher that wants his students to give their best, or even a literal judge (like in Step Up). Regardless, this character is an authority figure that somehow “forces” the reluctant lead to join the dance crew / start training / attend a school etc… This character exists to kickstart the story.
That’s the admission lady Ms Ramirez. She’s not exactly a fully fleshed-out character. Just like her character archetype, this character only appears when the plot needs her to. She is the reason why Quinn starts a dance crew.
In the end
Overall, I have to say that I enjoyed watching Work It more than I anticipated.
It could be that watching The kissing booth 2 made me lose faith in Netflix and the announcement of a Kissing booth 3 made me lose faith in humanity, but Work It managed to win me over with its cute romance and light-hearted humor.
It’s a fun movie that suffers a bit for being too “by the numbers” and doesn’t explore the interesting themes it sets up, but the dance numbers are good and the story isn’t’ too convoluted. A fun movie that doesn’t glorify toxic relationships, so good enough for me.