Sometimes it seems like studios use the cinematic equivalent of a cookie cutter to produce genre films. Step Up is the second "dance film" that I've seen this year, and it is impossible not to compare it to Take the Lead. Step Up's lead actress, Jenna Dewan, was also in Take the Lead, which doesn't help matters. And the opening credit sequence of Step Up was structured in the same way as Take the Lead: juxtaposing two different types of dance moves (ballet and hip-hop this time) to show us the two different social spheres that we all know will eventually collide, just like peanut butter and chocolate, to create something new and wonderful.
Fortunately, Step Up is a much more watchable film than Take the Lead. The storyline is slightly more subtle and less predictable, and the dancing is more energetic. Take the Lead had a fussy lesson-like atmosphere at times, probably because of Antonio Banderas' instructor character, but Step Up doesn't rely on an older figure of authority as a catalyst for action. The storyline of Step Up offers no surprises: Streetwise teen Tyler (Channing Tatum) and his friends vandalize a Baltimore art school's theater; he gets caught, and is forced to do community service in the school. When rich-kid dance student Nora (Jenna Dewan) loses her dance partner for the important Senior Showcase performance, one thing leads to another and hip-hop dancer Tyler switches from janitorial service to learning classical dance moves. You don't need me to tell you what happens next. There are a lot of jokes about tights.
Tyler's struggles with his dead-end home environment, the possibilities he discovers at the art school, and the ways this affects his longtime friendship with Mac (Damaine Radcliff) are meant to be the focus of the film. However, the teenage-girl characters are surprisingly strong, and I found them more interesting and complex than the guys. I'd like to attribute this to the film being directed and co-written by women, but Take the Lead was also written and directed by women and it included that horrible "men lead, women follow" message. The young women in Step Up are leaders as well as high-school kids. They giggle about boys and go to parties and listen to MP3s on their cell phones, but they also work hard to achieve their ambitious career goals.
Although I know very little about dancing, I found the dance numbers in the film to be more engaging than the predictable dramatic moments. (The minute I saw a certain character, I knew what was going to happen to him, and hoped I was wrong. I was right.) Jenna Dewan projects amazing energy as a dancer, although her acting is undistinguished. Drew Sidora is a lot of fun as Nora's sidekick Lucy. She and Mario, who plays the aspiring musician Miles, are more enjoyable to watch than the two leads, at least in the non-dancing scenes.
Step Up also included several younger characters in small roles who were so adorable and amusing that they threatened to steal the film at times. I liked Tyler's foster sister Camille, played by Alyson Stoner, and wished the movie had included her more in the storyline (why couldn't she somehow attend the final performance, at least?). One little girl in a ballet class that Nora teaches drew the biggest laughs of the night. And De'Shawn Washington lightened the mood of several scenes as Skinny, Mac's kid brother.
I did feel sorry for Rachel Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding), who has one of the most thankless roles in the film as the art school's principal. She does the best she can with some clunky dialogue -- she gets to mouth all the platitudes, poor woman. Deidre Lovejoy seems miscast as Nora's mom, and has even worse dialogue than Griffiths. (She tries to force poor Nora to go to ... Cornell! That's so mean!) But then none of the adult characters in this film have any depth; the focus is meant to be on the high-school kids.
While it's probably some kind of Hollywood law that movies like Step Up need to have a positive message, at least Step Up's moral teachings aren't delivered with a sledgehammer. The teens don't learn from older mentors or authority figures, but from one another and from the situations around them. As with Take the Lead, the kids from poor neighborhoods are all entangled in criminal activities to one degree or another -- a stereotype that I wish studios would quit perpetuating. The stereotype goes hand-in-hand with the story element that getting involved in sports, or dance, or some other wholesome activity will help these kids turn their lives around.
Step Up is worth seeing for its kinetic dance numbers -- which makes sense when you consider that first-time feature director Anne Fletcher has been choreographing Hollywood movies for more than a decade. And let's face it, no one's looking for witty dialogue or unforeseen plot twists in a formulaic dance movie. Remember, Astaire-Rogers movies always had predictable storylines -- it was the dancing that drew everyone to the theater. Tatum and Dewan have none of the chemistry of Astaire and Rogers, but with help from a good supporting cast and talented choreography, the movie rises above the usual cookie-cutter dance-movie fare.