The much-dreaded (by some, at least) remake of the 1984 teen classic turns out to be, with an injection of youth, quite spry indeed. It's an old story made refreshingly new. But not too new.
At the screening I went to, attended by a random assortment of critics and what seemed to be friends of young publicity and marketing assistants, I saw two weary-looking critics talking to each other, both men on the north side of their thirties who seemed rather unhappy to be here. "Lose a bet?" the seated one asked the standing one when he saw him. These dudes were not happy to be there, reviewing some cheesy teen flick. Some people just don't like this kind of thing, and that's OK.
Luckily, or tragically depending on how you see it, I happen to love this kind of thing. These stories — of rebellious boy meets haughty girl and mock antagonistic banter ensues, of rebellious boy ruffling establishment feathers, of haughty girl slamming doors in overbearing parents' faces, of gumptious kids teaching all the old squares who forgot what it was like at that age a well-deserved lesson — are, like comicbook superhero tropes, our American myth cycles. I find something cozy and oddly primal in the repetitive retelling of them; the most successful attempts being the ones that both honor the rules while also finding inventive new wrapping paper. And this new Footloose, I'm genuinely surprised to say, does just that.
What director Craig Brewer, working with a version of the original Dean Pitchford script tweaked and updated by Brewer himself, cannily figures out here is how to pay loving, gentle homage to the now 27-year-old original (sheesh) while also finding ways to update it for the kids of today. He doesn't winkingly call the old version lame or uncool or anything. He simply says "Hey, what a neat story, what a cool myth. Here, kids, let me tell it to you in a way you'll totally get." He clearly respects the comfortable silliness of the original, showing a genuine want for the teens of now to appreciate a slightly hipper version of its corny positivity. If you have to throw in an iPod and a little krumping to do that, well that's just fine.
That neat story, for those of you bizarrely uninitiated, is indeed about as cornball as it gets: Slick city boy with the dashing yet flinty name of Ren MacCormack (here played by Kenny Wormald, a former Justin Timberlake backup dancer) moves to a small town called Bomont only to discover that, following a fatal car accident involving five teens coming home from a dance, all public dancing has been outlawed; a rule heavily enforced by the town's influential minister (Dennis Quaid here), whose own son was killed in the accident. There is of course a girl, this time played by Julianne Hough, the female half of the Dancing With the Stars Hough wondertwins duo, who just happens to be the daughter of said stern minister. Will Ren get the girl and teach the town to dance again? What do you think.
So yes, it's a corny story that involves a (straight) teenage boy talking passionately about dance in small town America, not to mention a small town filled with kids with amazing dancing ability, but it's a great, fun, spirited story too. And Brewer communicates that through every satisfying dance sequence, bringing the same joy-of-creation verve to these set pieces, albeit a much brighter and less grimy kind, as he did to the recording scenes of his Hustle and Flow. Brewer respects the dance as much as he does the well-worn narrative tropes, but he's also keen and subtle in making them palatable to 2011's Step Up savvy hip-hop kids. He's blessed his film with some, I daresay, non-white folks, and opening the film up to at least one other culture means we get our kicky line dancing and some parking lot crunk. The miracle is that neither seems forced or pandering, every different style shares the same source of uplift and youthful abandon. The dance scenes are fast and fun, with quick cuts giving way to lingering looks at bodies in motion, and sweetly intoxicating; a drunker, less professional audience than mine would likely have been dancing along by the end. Let's hope that happens this weekend in some theater, somewhere.
As for the non-dancing parts, Brewer was brave to cast dancers, not actors, in the two lead roles. Ultimately, though, he was both lucky and smart to have moved past Zac Efron and Chace Crawford (who were both attached to the movie at some point in its development) and found Kenny Wormald. Wormald, a Boston boy with a chahhming Charlestown drawl, is foxy in the real animal sense of the word. He's both handsome and cute, with just a hint of exurb malnourishment and feralness that plays either hard or vulnerable depending on the lighting. Wormald won't be playing a troubled yet dancing Hamlet any time soon, but he can act well enough for a story like this. He does what chiefly needs doing, tapping into the movie's rhythms and nimbly jigging along with it the way that Kevin Bacon did in the '80s. Wormald understands what the movie is doing and instinctually finds his place in the picture. He knows it's a lark, knows his accent is a bit of a joke, knows he's there to look good and dance well, and so that's what he does. He does a good job, and I wish him more work. Maybe that dancing Hamlet isn't such a terrible idea, actually.
As for Julianne Hough, well, I was deeply skeptical about her. There's something too polished and apple-fed American and, frankly, Mormon about her whole Bobbsey twin shtick (she and her alien-like, non-twin brother Derek have both been pro dancers on DWTS and both share a strange and mysterious relationship with Ryan Seacrest), that I just didn't think she'd be able to ingratiate herself as a madonna/whore preacher's daughter who's really just a wounded dove inside. But daggum if she doesn't actually pull it off. Again, she's not going to be box-stepping out "A willow grows aslant the brook" any time soon, but she does her one big heavy-lifting scene with admirable believability and, as any good dancer should, knows her way around a sexy slink and a coy come-hither pose.
So both kids are well cast and do more than not embarrass themselves. Also well cast is the winning Miles Teller as Ren's new friend and goofy comic relief Willard, and Ray McKinnon as Ren's kindly country uncle. As the grieving, rule-making pastor, Quaid has a startlingly forceful opening speech but then settles into your typical "What's gotten into you young lady?" routine. He does it well enough, but there's an early spark in his performance that I hoped might indicate he was taking the role somewhere else. Andie MacDowell does her usual monotone as the minster's wife, and the always marvelous Kim Dickens has at least one nice scene as Ren's aunt.
But really, who cares much about the acting? Is the movie fun? Yes, the movie is very fun. It's definitely sexier than the original, but not in a way that feels cheap. There's a certain level of odd violence in the movie, in two scenes in particular, that is too much for a film like this. You cheer when the hero gets a good punch in, but then squirm uncomfortably as he proceeds to, well, near about kill a dude if this were real life. That's maybe a lingering holdover from Brewer's gruesome Black Snake Moan days, and it just doesn't have a place here.
That's a small complaint, however. Mostly this movie is, against a lot of odds, an energizing success. Brewer has made a movie that both satisfies fans of the original and welcomes in a new group of devotees. As any religion must, it realigns itself with the new world while keeping its core values intact. It's a little sexy, a little sad (in the way that any movie about how our teenage years could have been that much fun is sad), and it's a lot surprising. Take your teenage daughter, she'll love it. Take yourself, you might love it too.
I do believe I saw at least one of those critics' heads bobbing merrily along by the time the credits rolled.