Turns out being a hardworking, straight-A student isn’t enough to get you into the college of your dreams. At least that’s the ill-advised guidance a Duke University admissions officer gives type-A teenager Quinn Ackerman (Sabrina Carpenter), whose pre-collegiate credentials — between her 4.0 GPA, mastery of the cello and light-board operation for her high school’s high-profile dance team, the Thunderbirds — are all perfect on paper.
Her exemplary record and clean-cut demeanor are apparently lacking a certain flair or pizzazz in the eyes of her interviewer, which leads her to tell a, shall we say, tweaked version of the truth: that Quinn is herself a Thunderbird, and not just in a technical sense. But when she learns the Duke admissions officer plans on attending the Thunderbirds’ next big tournament, Quinn’s little lie turns into a big problem — because, on top of everything else, Quinn simply can’t dance.
After convincing her Thunderbird best friend, Jasmine (Liza Koshy), to leave the dog-eat-dog dance team behind and help her form her own troupe, the two recruit a motley crue of high-school misfits whose social media posts and reputations demonstrate … potential. They can barely keep time, and their first performance literally ends with their sole audience member on a stretcher, but their spirit and drive wins the attention of former Internet dance superstar Jake Taylor (Jordan Fisher), who comes out of injury-induced retirement to act as their choreographer.
Much in the same way, “Work It” is not going to impress anyone looking for either the freshest available comedy or filmmaking chops near as athletic as the onscreen talent, but its raw, joie-de-vivre vitality has an undeniable magic to it, however quickly its spell may wear off. As charisma largely fuels the art of dance, so does it propel this movie for a breezy 93 minutes thanks to the cast’s vibrant physicality and chemistry. It’s message of learning to embrace happiness over success is a simple one, perhaps even simplistic, and it’s all but worn out as far as movies go, but when it’s delivered in such a spirited, pulsating package as this, it’ll prove difficult for even 2020’s most downtrodden curmudgeon to resist.
The best-friend dynamic between Carpenter and Koshy is a delight to witness as the two refine their footing and maneuver one another through various, sometimes gut-busting hijinks. In particular, Koshy, famous for her hysterical YouTube persona, employs her commanding physicality to illuminate every shot she’s in, whether through loony facial contortions or fierce footwork. Carpenter, a well-known pop singer and previous Disney Channel star, levels Koshy out with understated but well-timed line delivery, and the sparks between her and Fisher — who share more than one jaw-dropping duet — are often electrifying.
Where “Work It” frequently stumbles is its seemingly factory-churned script held back by outright predictability and an obsession with pandering to teen culture. No major plot development comes as a surprise to anyone who’s watched any comedy with a traditional three-act structure, and many a line is glutted with an eye-rolling pop-culture reference delivered so awkwardly and flatly, it would be a surprise if it wasn’t thrown in during reshoots at the behest of an audience-illiterate executive. Further validating that suspicion is Netflix’s continuing tendency to brazenly advertise its other properties within its own films or series, a tactic that, no matter its means of delivery, is simply not funny and will simply never be.
There’s not much groundbreaking about “Work It,” and in many ways it’s indiscernible from other glitzy teen comedies of its ilk. But if you’re looking to get your foot tapping or enjoy a few laughs for an hour and a half, it’s bound to do the trick.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at email@example.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.