All a “Step Up” TV show has to do, really, is deliver the dance. The multi-installment, multi-million dollar franchise that launched Channing Tatum’s career is mostly an excuse for dance numbers, with melodrama grafted on top for plausible transitions. That might sound like a bad thing, but far from it: the dance film subgenre is sacrosanct, one that marries passion for form with teenage cultural commentary. Sure, they’re sometimes a little fragile – if only because you have to maneuver to concoct conflicts that can be resolved through dance – but their sincere love for mixed forms and the genre’s faith in finding common ground through performance are truly timeless.
“Ramp up: high water” Is deliver the dance, in the form of another set of talented young performers. But as a bonus, it also built a heartfelt premise for its two leads, twins Tal (Petrice Jones) and Janelle (Lauryn McClain) Baker. Tal, a ballet dancer, illustrates next. Janelle, a hip-hop cheerleader, hopes to go to college on a dance scholarship. But the brother and sister are forced to move out and start over when their mother relapses into her drug addiction and lands in prison. They have to move from their suburban enclave in Ohio to the outskirts of Atlanta – leaving their house, changing schools and dropping out of their dance academy. Worst of all, they have to work shifts at their Uncle Al’s (Faizon Love) chicken wing restaurant. (It’s called “Al’s Wigs and Wangs.” “Wangs” is art license with the word “wings”; wigs you can buy out the back door.) But when the twins discover an arts school in the free show led by famous musician Sage Odom (Ne-Yo), they begin to chart a future beyond what life has in store for them.
And this is only the beginning of the drama.
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“Step Up: High Water” demonstrates an assured confidence in balancing the darker parts of its storytelling with lighthearted comedy; the switch from the mother of the twins being arrested to Love’s truly hilarious performance as Al is both lightning fast and surprisingly skilled. Likewise, McClain and Jones have a naïve naturalism in their performances that indicates a mastery of establishing adolescent dynamics; the two are endearing, especially with each other. And, refreshingly, the plot has real grit: the choices kids have to make are really complicated, not just complicated for teenagers. At first, Tal and Janelle have crushes on the same guy – Dondre (Marcus Mitchell), a neighbor with a slightly suspicious amount of money. Janelle’s scholarship to Ohio State comes into question with her forced relocation, as she cannot afford out-of-state tuition; Tal, forced into the closet by his oblivious uncle, becomes the target of vicious bullying at school. And the High Water kids, all talented dancers, are cliquaire and competitive. The protagonists are dancers, but they are also at the mercy of the trapped environment in which they have settled – a situation and an atmosphere that “Step Up: High Water” sensitively explores.
Of course, he is a teen soap opera, and that means the character dynamic rearranges and evolves at a hummingbird’s pace. It’s okay with teenagers, who randomly declare quarrels and have sex when they’re not dancing. But when adults start getting involved with the show’s purpose, it loses some of its reckless charm. High Water’s founder, Sage, struggles with funding and his relationship with the school’s head administrator, Collette (Naya Rivera). Local strongman East-O (R. Marcos Taylor) plays the pawnbroker everyone is afraid of, and naturally, there’s a love triangle. They’re all fine, but they lack the energy and chemistry of rookies Davis (Carlito Olivero) and Odalie (Jade Chynoweth). Olivero and Chynoweth already have their own Internet followers, for good reason: they jump off the screen.
A dance TV show can’t be a dance movie, no matter how hard it tries; the arc of a 90-minute conflict and its resolution is much harder to plot over 10 one-hour episodes. But this YouTube Red original has found an intriguing way to blend the mediums of dance, film, and soapy teen TV, with an energetic, mindful new installment of the series that’s a whole lot of fun to get sucked into.