Step Up

| August 17, 2006

Securing the second highest box office in its opening weekend, Step Up’s sexy marketing plan clearly reached it target millennial audience. Featuring an Abercrombie model named Channing Tatum in the lead probably helped. Having choreographed countless films, Anne Fletcher makes her directorial debut with Step Up. Though she is a novice director, her screenwriters, Duane Adler (who wrote the similarly themed Save the Last Dance) and Melissa Rosenberg (a television writer who studied dance in college) share her dance background. With all this dance experience, you might think this film would provide unique insights to the world of dancers. You would be wrong.
Step Up depicts Tyler Gage’s awakening to a desire for more out of life than stealing cars and bumming around with friends Mac (Damaine Radcliff) and Mac’s little brother Skinny (De’Shawn Washington, playing a character so annoying he is marked for doom from the start). The impetus for this change is a woman (of course—who says a woman can’t change a man?) who yearns for a career as a dancer. The two meet when Gage is forced to work as a janitor at a performing arts high school as punishment for vandalism. He offers to step in as a dance partner for ambitious Nora Clark (Janne Dewan) when her partner twists his ankle. If you haven’t been living in a closet for most of your life, the rest of the plotline should be pretty obvious: the dancers fall in love and mutually achieve their dreams. Sorry if that kills the suspense for you, closet-dweller.
But most audience members likely won’t see this film for the surprises. Critics have repeatedly compared Step Up to past teen wonderfilms, including Footloose and Fame, and part of the appeal of Step Up is precisely this tradition of light date movie fare. Just as listening to your favorite song over and over doesn’t necessarily lessen your love for the song, Hollywood’s assembly line production of teen romances doesn’t detract from their appeal. Though Step Up shares the corny romanticism of Footloose, the movie more closely resembles a less insightful 8 Mile. Like Eminem, Tatum is not a great actor, but Fletcher wisely asks little of him. Case in point, during a climactic scene with buddy Mac, Damaine Radcliff does the heavy lifting for the scene while Fletcher keeps the camera largely off Tatum but for a few brief reaction shots.
Tatum is attractive, with his shaved-head marine aesthetic, and his stoic demeanor works for the character. As a dancer, he’s kinda odd, but perhaps I’m not down with the hip moves. Reminding me of those 80s dancers who moved their bodies like a jellyfish, Tatum rolls through his urban moves as if his joints were liquid. Acquiring more control over his body throughout the film, Tatum’s growth as a dancer is evident. Considering that his casting panders to the lowest common denominator of teen girls’ hormones, Tatum creates a surprisingly likeable, if not moving, lead character.
Generally with a film that offers stunt casting like Tatum’s, the second lead compensates for the lack of the first. With Step Up, female lead Janne Dewan has the dance moves, having been a video dancer for Janet Jackson and P. Diddy. She, too, however lacks charisma and conviction as an actor. When she and Tatum move together and turn up the heat sexually, the film comes alive. But in the more sensitive moments, they falter. Again, Fletcher wisely keeps these moments to a minimum.
Employing the usual wrong side of the track dynamic, screenwriters Adler and Rosenberg fail to take full advantage of the inherent tension in this dynamic. Nora’s mother doesn’t point out their socio-economic differences, and he doesn’t force Nora to recognize her privilege. Without a deeper exploration of these tensions, the obstacle to a happy union between Tyler and Nora rests on a few casual misunderstandings. Nora’s great fear is that her mother will force her to attend an Ivy League college should she not be invited to join a dance company after her senior recital. That’s her fate worse than death: attending Brown. If only most of us could be that unlucky.
Don’t worry—there are plenty of other teen film clichés in this movie, though the stark lack of teen sex seems unrealistic and possibly irresponsible. Fletcher’s audience is so young that it is a shame she overlooks an opportunity to honestly reflect their experience in this sexually-obsessed and open society. As car thieves, Mac, Skinny, and Tyler perform their duties with great naivete. Avoiding drugs and guns, they act more like children than hoods. Violence of course finds its way to their doorstep, but again, it is innocence that causes their downfall. Shying away from the moral ambiguity required to honestly examine why a young man breaks the law without care, Fletcher again misses an opportunity to produce a layered and challenging portrait of modern teen life.
Secondary characters Mario (as hip hop musical master Miles) and Drew Sidora (as a dancer/singer) deliver all the energy lacking in the leads. Rachel Griffiths from Six Feet Under lends gravitas to the film as the head of the performing arts high school. She affects her language to sound snooty, which is awfully annoying, but costumer Alix Hester makes her look fabulous. The film is pretty to look at in general and provides a reasonably entertaining hour and a half, including a particularly stunning dance party in the middle of the film. Step Up aspires to be no more than what it is: a sugary confection meant for mass appeal.

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