Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Movie Review: Dance Academy (2017)



Since I’m in the middle of my traditional Autumn/Winter rut and I’m starting to fall ridiculously behind with my review output, I don’t think anyone will mind if I skip the pleasantries and just get into the film already. This is Dance Academy.

The plot: Tara (Xenia Goodwin) is a former ballet dancer whose promising career was cut short by an injury caused by slipping on stage. However, upon meeting theatre director Madeline (Miranda Otto), Tara decides to give dancing another try. Her freshly-sparked mission takes her all the way to the U.S.A. and, with her best friends in tow, she is determined to find her place on the stage again… even if her injury holds her back.

This film is a reunion/possible conclusion to the TV series of the same name; a series which I have never watched an episode of, nor have I really heard of it up until the lead-up to this film. However, while there are certain touches that definitely feel like they’ve had a lot of build-up behind them, this is surprisingly easy to dive into as a newcomer. The relationships that we see, coupled with the winding turns that they end up taking over the course of the film, are rather compelling even without knowing the backstory. Honestly, the only part of the series’ narrative that needs elaboration on is Tara’s last performance, and even then the film does an admirable job at bringing the audience up to speed on that. In fact, Tara’s character arc here is incredibly compelling all on its own, coupled with direction that I would never have expected from someone who once worked on Angry Boys. On that note, the dance sequences are quite fantastic. I say this as someone who never really took much stock in dancing as an art form; the fact that I can be emotionally moved by the dancing shown here means that Bronson must be doing something right.

There’s also something to be said of the general comradery that permeates every conversation on screen here. It’s difficult to really pin down other than saying that it feels very familiar. Back in school, probably the only consistently joyous time I had was when I was involved in drama and musical theatre. Thinking back on those days, the backstage drama, the tension, the rapture when we went out and did our performances; this film definitely tapped into something nostalgic for me. The connections between the characters feel like they have had a good few years development put into them, and the result is easily some of the most natural dialogue I’ve seen in a long while, especially for an Aussie film. It’s very warm and inviting, kind of like something that Nick Hornby would write if he drank Victoria Bitter instead of Foster’s. Considering the myriad of TV adaptations I’ve sat through since starting this blog, this is possibly the most graceful transition between mediums I’ve covered yet. I say that because one of the inherent strengths of televised storytelling is that, because of the duration of the average show’s run, a lot of time is dedicated to the characters and defining them as living, breathing people. Here, it feels like that has been carried over with how the characters feel so natural next to each other, to the point where dramatic points that are likely carried over from the show still hit pretty damn hard.

When it comes to stories about creative passions, particularly those involving a character getting back on the horse after a tragic event (or what feels to them like a tragic event), themes of determination and how much importance one places on their craft inevitably get brought. And sure enough, the same is true here and it’s honestly pretty resonant. Between Tara recovering from her career-ending injuries to Ben’s medical treatments, we get a vivid picture of a group of people who are willing to give their all in order to fulfill their dreams. Even if it is literally life-threatening to do so. Whenever people in the real world mention the trials and tribulations that come from chasing the creative dream, there’s always someone who mutters something to the effect of “get a real job”. Those of you who read my La La Land review will know that I do tend to air on the idealistic side of things, and thus have no patience for killjoys like this. Actually, speaking of La La Land, this film carries a similar tone concerning how much we devote ourselves to our passions… even if the end result is less than glamourous. Between the main cast, we see determination, desperation, exasperation and adoration, sometimes all at the same time, and we get the idea that even if it’s physically and medically dangerous, chasing the dream is still worth it. That is, until the final reel, where that gets flipped on its head and it goes for the more realistic “Yeah, you’re still putting yourself at risk here, is your ‘dream’ really worth it?” and questioning why they are pushing themselves as hard as they are. It initially felt like a bit of betrayal on first watching it, but thinking back on it, it’s more of a revelation that, sometimes, we spend so much time trying to prove the universe wrong and succeed that we fail to see that maybe they aren’t doing it for the right reasons. And when it comes to the creative arts, there is really only one reason that anyone ever needs: You want to do it.

All in all, even as an outsider to the main series, I found this to be incredibly entertaining. The acting is incredibly strong across the board, the writing carries the best of television’s sense of character development without feeling like we’ve necessarily missed all the good bits and the story may be familiar but it reaches quite potent emotional peaks with the grace of a ballerina. I may not watch TV nearly as much as I used to (this is why Coffee Nebula has kind of fallen off the face of the Earth of late) but if I ever get that inkling to do so, Dance Academy is definitely one of the first shows I’ll go after. It’s better than The Boss Baby, as this has a similar emotional heft without the worry that I could be arrested for looking at this many naked children. However, in comparison to another first-time experience with a pre-existing TV franchise, Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale couples pathos with some pretty good subtextual commentary; as someone who must read into films as intently as possible, SAO scratches that itch for me just a little bit better.

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