Emily VanDerWerff’s old A.V. Club Glee recaps are probably the pinnacle of television criticism. Frequently annoyed, occasionally vitriolic, and once-in-a-blue moon downright insightful. More than anything, VanDerWerff’s writing is a testament to what the goals of pop-culture criticism should be, namely, to consider just what something is saying. Glee, for the blissfully unaware, is an insipid time capsule; a bizarre pop-culture oddity from the early 2010s that’s almost certainly the reason we’re getting an ugly looking Ryan Murphy Nurse Ratched prequel series next month. It is also, as VanDerWerff writing routinely points out, about the structural feeling of being young; how you can get into a space where because the future is so uncertain, all you can do is ardently focus with laser intensity on the thing right in front of you that you want more than anything in this world.
In Larua Terruso’s Work It pop star/actress Sabrina Carpenter stars as Quinn, a bookish High School Senior who is in search of that “anything” is. She believes that it’s attending Duke University, her deceased father’s alma matter, in order to feel closer to him. Since this is a teen comedy, it is almost certain that this will not be what she needs. It’s basic script-writing 101, what your characters wants, what are their needs, and how do those two differ from each other.
As is standard operating procedure for this kind of film, the Duke admissions board claims that Quinn is too singularly focused, and lacks the passion that they’re looking for. This leads Quinn to lie, and claim that she’s a part of her High School’s championship dance team known as the Thunderbirds. Only issue: she’s actually been banished from the squad by the villainous Julliard (Keiynan Lonsdale) following an amusing lighting mishap.
With the help of best friend Jasmine (Vine legend Liza Koshy), Quinn pulls together your standard rag-tag group of quirky outcasts and loners in order to try and beat the Thunderbirds at their own game, namely, the “Work It” team dance competition. More importantly, Quinn scores a major coup in the form of convincing the legendary Jake Taylor (Jordan Fisher), an excellent dancer before a tragic knee injury, to choreography their routine.
The spark between Quinn and Jake is palpable, a testament to the chemistry that Carpenter and Fisher both have. They also have to be together because the plot demands it. Work It may have the moves, but it steadfastly refuses to reinvent them. If you’ve seen Pitch Perfect, hell if you’ve seen clips of Drumline on YouTube, you’re almost certain to know just about every beat that this film is going to hit.
Yet, Terruso works with what they’ve got. Teen films tend to occasionally feel a touch pedantic at times, again the aforementioned maxim of VanDerWerff’s Glee reviews feels apt here. In order to work, they need charismatic characters. As a vine legend, Koshy brings the comedy in spades, while Lonsdale is delightful as the overtly dramatic rival. Throughout the film, Julliard is wrong about a great number of things (as is the nature of being the teen rival), but one they are undoubtedly correct about is the fact that you cannot extinguish their flames.
It’s Carpenter whose big “I’m under 5’2 what’cha gunna do” energy carries what should otherwise be a difficult to love character. It’s clear that she’s a brilliant student, with the means to attend Duke, which makes her position as the underdog a peculiar one. Yet, Carpenter sells this character’s transformation into someone who clearly cares about dance with aplomb. There’s one particular shot where Quinn runs full force to Jake’s apartment to tell him just how much she loves dance, that’s almost impossible to describe. The look on her face is one of pure elation. The upbeat Ciara jam doesn’t hurt in this scene.
I’ll give Terruso credit, the curated soundtrack is incredible. Using Dua Lipa’s “Cool” (which absolutely slaps) in particular is a million good graces points in my books. Nothing about Work It is ground breaking, but damn if its ebullience isn’t contagious. This is summer cinema at its finest; deliriously fun, and you can’t put your finger on why.
- Genre: Dance, Teen
- Release Date: 8/7/2020
- Directed by: Laura Terruso
- Starring: Liza Koshy, Sabrina Carpenter
- Written by: Alison Peck
- Studio: Netflix
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