‘Work It’ Review: Netflix’s Teen Rom-Com Dances to a Fun Rhythm

Like a flavor at the ice cream shop that you instantly recognize and know every contour of its taste, Netflix’s “Work It” never misses a single beat in its tale of young, dancing love. It’s a self-conscious enough film, unashamed of being a lite entertainment. To its credit, there is also something more offered in terms of messaging, at least for those adolescent viewers who obsess over 4.0 GPAs. 

Somewhere in suburbialand, Quinn Ackerman (Sabrina Carpenter) is desperate to get into Duke University. She has the grades, her dad went there, and her dreams are, well, nothing much at the beginning. When we first meet Quinn she’s a typical, straight-A clutz. Among her many extracurricular activities is running the lights for school theater, this is where he accidentally ruins a number by the Thunderbirds, the school’s elite dance team. But while going through the interview process at Duke, the admissions officer lets Quinn know she’s a bit of a bore. However, when the admissions officer professes she loves the Thunderbirds, Quinn claims she’s a member. Now she has to deliver at an upcoming, major dance competition to get into the university. The only problem is not only is Quinn not a Thunderbird, she can’t dance at all. To fix this problem she recruits best friend and Thunderbird, Jasmine (Liza Koshy), to train her. When the dance squad, led by the egomaniacal Julliard Pembroke (Keiynan Lonsdale), refuses to give Quinn a chance, she decides to form her own dance squad with Jasmine. They recruit a whole slew of outsiders and beg an accomplished dancer, Jake (Jordan Fisher), to help with choreography. 

From there on out, “Work It” follows every pattern you can already guess. Quinn must work through her insecurities and teacher’s pet nature to become a good dancer. Jake will fall in love with someone, and Julliard will be waiting for a final showdown. But it’s all pulled off with lively, good-hearted charm by director Laura Terruso, who wisely seems more taken in by the music and dance moves. Instead of letting scenes drag on into overdone teenage melodrama, Terruso puts the focus on the challenge of learning to dance. The expected, very standard moments of characters having crushes, or Quinn dealing with her pressure-inducing mom, are intercut with very fun, exhilarating sequences. It helps that actors like Jordan Fisher and Liza Koshy are superb dancers, while Sabrina Carpenter convincingly plays a person without much rhythm at the beginning then slowly turns into someone who can pull off a few good numbers. One of the producers of the film is Alicia Keys, who obviously knows a thing or two about preparing for hitting the stage. “Work It” takes dancing seriously, and this helps it overcome its more cheesy, teen drama heart.

The screenplay by Alison Peck also redeems itself by throwing in some noteworthy themes. The characters are all likeable, and there are goofy antics all around, like the admissions officer who loves the Thunderbirds. The dialogue has pep in its jokes, sometimes with eye-rollers like Julliard applying to, of course, Julliard. But at its core “Work It” is also a welcome message against being a total apple polisher. Sure, it’s important to get good grades and go to school, but what is it worth if you yourself are empty as a curious human being? Quinn’s journey isn’t really about dancing, it’s about finding something to be passionate about in this world. Some students only obsess with getting into the fancy, four-letter institution because the resulting degree promises financial gains. Basically, you will make a lot more money, so the system tells us. But when the admissions officer tells Quinn she has nothing much to offer it’s a striking message, particularly in this era where credentials and status are even more of an obsession than ever before. 

“Work It” has appeal in its well-intentioned, zesty tone. The dance moves are much fun and the third act generates real tension when the story takes sudden turns, threatening to derail Quinn’s dreams. But even as we’re having a good time, the story has more than flash to offer, even if it’s done with a lite touch. Some messages are worth listening to even if we get distracted by the killer beats.

Work It” begins streaming Aug. 7 on Netflix.