Family / Comedy
2010 / 107 minutes
The producers bill this as “High School Musical meets Napoleon Dynamite” but I’ll have to take their word for it, not having seen either. I do know it is laugh-out-loud, tears-in-your-eyes funny in parts.
When the vice principal charges Lewis Grady with building up school spirit, he decides to start a guys-only dance…thing (he isn’t quite sure what it is, but he knows it isn’t a dance team because that’s what girls do). His two quirky friends are happy to help, even if they’ve got some misgivings about dancing in front of the whole student body. The three buddies bribe, beg, and bargain their way through the recruitment process, ending up with a group of a dozen or more. But it’s one thing to get a group together, and another to get that group dancing together, especially when the guys have more than their share of left feet. But with a little help from mom and some friends on the school’s award-winning girls’ dance team, they start figuring things out.
Right before their first public performance, Lewis rallies the troops with an inspirational speech that is comic gold. He reminds them of the dream most every student has had, of showing up to school in nothing but your underwear. “This is that day,” he tells them: “The majority of the kids out there feel like they’re showing up to school half-naked every day. Today is for the nobodies, for the average, I-don’t-even-matter kids.” Lewis wants his group to be an inspiration to the ordinary guys and girls out there in the audience, showing them you don’t have to be awesome at something to do it, you just have to be willing to ignore the peer pressure and embrace the joy.
The villain of the piece is the teacher who runs the girls’ dance team. She thinks the boys are making a mockery of dance, and she wants them shut down, and she’s used to getting her way. While that adds some drama to the story, this is mostly just goofy dance numbers, and quirky friends, showing how fun can be had when you ignore the mockers and set out to be encouragers.
The biggest caution would just be the film’s name. Unitards are a one-piece garment that dancers (especially ballet) often wear, but there is also an implicit, never made explicit, reference here to “tard,” short for retard, with the joke being that any boys in a dance group are sure to have that word directed their way. It’s in bad taste, but that it isn’t made explicit makes it easier to overlook.
While the dancing is modest by worldly standards, there is a lot of it, and it isn’t the formal sort you might see in a “Pride and Prejudice” film. This is more the jump and bounce and shake and wiggle type of dancing toddlers through teens do. That includes some butt-wiggling moves that are a brief part of one or two of the dance productions. It’s slightly sexually suggestive, but incidentally, rather than provocatively so. And when paired with the students’ generally modest dress, it is quite tame.
Director Scott Featherstone combined elements of his own school experience with what his son Sam (who plays Lewis Grady) and friends were experiencing to come up with the script. Then he held auditions at his son’s school to get all the actors. That’s why the acting is solid enough, even though these are not professional actors. What they are is high school students playing high school students so it’s not a stretch. And because the director and scriptwriter was a parent who knew the actors, some of these kids are almost certainly playing versions of themselves.
What makes this worth watching is just how sweet it is. High school can be a tough time for many, and what we have here is a prescription for how your kids can make it better for others, and maybe themselves. Lewis Grady’s friends poke fun, but they don’t tear down. The guys do look goofy dancing, but they’re also being brave, and some of the school’s girls are smart enough to appreciate and encourage that bravery. This is high school as we wish it could have been, and would still like it to be for our kids: full of challenges, yes, but not full of naysayers, mockers, and killjoys.