I must confess I just don't get the whole thing of African-American street dancing contests. In fact, I just ordered the documentary Rize because I've seen a few of these movies without feeling like I understand the whole world they're attempting to convey. But--that didn't stop me from watching this one!
We open at--SHOCK--a dance contest! There our main character DJ and his team, which includes his brother who he is close to, are competing against a rival, and they win. Part of what I was saying before is that usually in these movies it is impossible for me to determine how one team's moves are "superior" to the other's. Anyway, the loser offers a lot of money for double-or-nothing, and DJ agrees. This is not cool, as he made the decision without consulting his team. But they compete again, and win again. But! The other team are sore losers, and attack DJ and his brother, resulting in the brother getting fatally shot--and a massive guilt complex for DJ. Maybe if he had thought about the team and not just about himself, his brother might be alive today, ya dig?
So he moves to Atlanta. He's going to live with his Aunt and Uncle and his Uncle pulled some strings to get him into the subtly-titled TRUTH University, a black college. For this he must engage in work-study, which in this case means cutting the lawn and planting flowers, a debasement for our would-be slick dawg. For a while the movie is a series of sequences in which DJ sees Meagan Good and thoughtlessly interrupts some line of people, ending with him messing up some step team that is trying to do their routine before the Thetas, the rival team, and like eight-in-a-row step champions. I THINK the Thetas are the bad guys, but they might be the good guys, so for the purposes of this review they'll be the bad guys, okay? Anyway, it is soon revealed that April, that's Meagan Good, is the girlfriend of Grant, leader of the Thetas, whom you will recall are BAD. There's a whole lot of narrative here, huh? And get ready, cuz it's gonna BLOW.
We find out in short order that Grant is a jerk, and DJ would be so much better for her. So one night at a club April walks in on Grant dirty dancing with some other hick, and is annoyed, which DJ backs her up on. This earns the ire of Grant, who insults him as a lowerclassman--a conflict that can only be resolved through DANCE. DJ emerges victorious, which enrages but also impresses Grant, as DJ's moves are FRESH. The next day, both the Thetas and the second-place frat invite DJ to join, wanting him on their team, but he is above fraternaties. Then April, who he has connived into tutoring him as a way to spend time with her, tells him he should check out Heritage Hall, which he does. There he finds a big room of pictures of major black leaders, all of whom were in the Greek system, including Martin Luther King, Jr. By now you, like me, may be saying to yourself "Wow, this movie is surprisingly leisurely," because the first hour is content to just slowly unfold at a snail's pace.
SPOILERS > > >
But get ready, because we're just laying out the seeds that will bear fruits of confict quite soon. First, at the halfway point of the film, we discover that April is the daughter of a bigwig at the university, and he's basically arranged her marriage to Grant, who is a future leader of tomorrow. Her dad and DJ's uncle also have an unspoken rivalry. Meanwhile DJ has decided to join the second-place frat, and starts to train for the national step finals or whatever. They all train in an empty pool, and when practice is over, DJ stays behind to unleash his own moves. As seems to be a requirement for these movies, some evil guy from the Thetas is taping their rival's routine, so they can steal it and win the contest. In here, April has officially been won over by DJ, which Grant isn't very happy about.
So DJ's team finds their leader's moves a little tired, and they start secretly training with DJ as leader. Then the other leader feels betrayed, and they decide that it all must be settled through--you'll never guess--a DANCE CONTEST. This will determine who will lead their team. It's all going well for DJ until he decides to start doing his own thing, which his own teammates haven't learned and can't keep up with, leading to them losing and abandoning him. Someone says "It ain't always about you, dog," which might lead you to have a moment of "Oh, has it BEEN all about him?" Then you remember back at the very beginning, when DJ not respecting his team led to his brother's death. Then DJ does some soul-searching, apologizes, and asks to join the team. He is accepted, and we soon learn that his team will combine his fresh moves with their own tired ones, and obviously this will be the devastating combination.
At this point I glanced at the time counter and had a moment of: "Holy Shit! There is 45 MINUTES STILL LEFT TO GO!"
Now it might have seemed like there is a soap opera's worth of drama happening already, but now is when the conflict shoots INTO THE RED. The evil Thetas look up DJ's assault charge from his brother's death incident. He has to appear before the school board, telling them he has "become a better person" since being in the school. Well, that and $5.45 will get him an Extra Value Meal. He's kicked out of the school! But there's still one guy at the school who has the power to overturn the board's decision! And that guy is--you guessed it, April's dad!
Dad tells DJ that he can stay in school--IF he gives up April. DJ tells the guy that it's April's decision, and is effectively kicked out. BUT! April has overheard her father so callously arranging her life, and tells him she never wants to see him again! BUT WAIT! It would seem that DJ's AUNT used to be April's Dad's girlfriend, but his UNCLE stole her away! So there is some HISTORY here. When they tell DJ this, he snots off with "I wish you had told me about all this before it blew up in my face," which will begin his theme of blaming everyone else for everything.
Now believe it or not, all of this is going down AS the national championships are happening! We're intercutting between the competition, and I think you won't be surprised to discover that it soon comes down to the Thetas and DJ's team.
Now April goes to DJ and snots off that he should have told her about his assault charge. Then they go downstairs and she mentions her family connections, and he says "You should have just talked to me," and I'm like "Oh wait, now it's HER fault?" I think two things we learn is that a) we ALL need to practice better communication skills, and b) when that doesn't work, it is ALWAYS THE OTHER PERSON'S FAULT. Anyway, they go out on the porch and DJ confesses his deep-seated guilt over his brother's death, and cries, while she tells him to "Let it go." I think the healing has begun. In fact, I think the healing is pretty much done, after just that little weeping session. That's some high-speed reparative therapy.
And guess what? April's dad overturned the board's decision, and now DJ is back in school! WILL he be able to make it to the national finals in time to lead his team to victory? He does! And so do his Aunt, Uncle and April, all snug there in the audience. Then the winner is announced and--it's a TIE!
This obviously necessitates a deal-breaker dance-off. BUT! One of the rivals has stolen DJ's authentic street moves! Will DJ be able to channel the authentic beat of the street in order to best his opponents? Well--don't want to spoil everything! Oh wait, I do have to spoil it, to note that after DJ's team wins, we have a last shot of him and team on the wall of Heritage hall, in the company of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others of similar stature! Step your way into history!
< < < SPOILERS END
Overall, not a great movie. It starts out okay, unfolding at such a leisurely pace you may start to think "Is this going anywhere?" But then it hits the second hour where the conflict starts heating up, piling on wrinkle after wrinkle, more than the movie can stand, then in the last 30 minutes, piles on ten times more! And by that time it's all just too much to accept, and it crosses the line into the laughable.
Still, it maintains a generally good-natured cheer, and it's all about the value of education and tradition and not being self-centered and, as DJ says, "becoming a better person," and this gives it a good vibe to coast on. So while it's not great as a film, it's entertaining enough to get you through, and leaves you with a generally positive feeling.
OH! one last thing. This is the only one of these movies in which the final, winning dance numbers ARE appreciably better than the competition. So you're not left scratching your head about why one team won over the other. Yep, and that's about it.
If you're into these movies. If not, no reason in the world to.