Director: Jeffrey Walker
Runtime: 101 minutes
I have to confess that I have never seen an episode of Dance Academy, and that I went into this movie adaptation with a little cynicism. From the poster and title, it looked like just another “bunch of attractive people following their dreams” dance film. To my surprise, Dance Academy: The Movie doesn’t resort to that exploitation.
Picking up a couple of years after the series ended, the characters are entering their twenties, dealing with unmet expectations and trying to figure out who they want to be. How do you manage the disappointment of not achieving your dreams after spending your whole youth pursuing them? Getting the original cast and crew back together for a final story, this exploration of harsh reality is a brave move by everyone involved.
Tara (Xenia Goodwin) was a gifted ballet dancer at Sydney’s National Academy of Dance, before a slip during her performance damaged her back and ended her dance career. Eighteen months later, she is living with her choreographer boyfriend Christian (Jordan Rodrigues) and working as a waitress at the Opera House, but she can’t imagine life without dance. After a failed audition for Ballet Company director Madeline Moncur (Mirando Otto), Tara takes to the road and heads to New York City to pursue her dreams once again. While reconnecting with her friend Kat (Alicia Banit), now a popular children’s show host living in luxury, Tara struggles to develop her dance routine. She travels to Texas, where her old friend and fellow dancer Ben (Thomas Lacey) is battling cancer. The pair begin developing their own routines, determined to showcase their talents in NYC.
This adaptation of Samantha Strauss’ TV series is faithful to the source, in large part due to Strauss’ involvement as screenwriter on the production. There are clearly autobiographical elements in the script; like her protagonist, Strauss trained in ballet before a fractured back-injury made her change directions. Director Jeffrey Walker was a child actor on Aussie shows like Round The Twist and The Wayne Manifesto, before making his break in the US as a director on Modern Family. I suspect the many of the life issues tackled in Dance Academy: The Movie resonate with Walker as well. The movie benefits from the heartfelt manner in which its material is presented, and the themes about youth and maturity will ring true for a lot of people.
The acting is top-notch, the characters are beautifully-realised, and Strauss’ wise screenplay has some witty dialogue. Although the movie is generally lightweight, there are some surprisingly effective dramatic moments. The most memorable occurs when the competitive aspect of Tara and Kat’s ambitions boils up and Tara’s jealousy of Kat’s success gets the best of her. The story might be clichéd-riddled, but the characters stand out as credible and genuine individuals and their situations come across more honest than contrived.
Walker understands how to get out of the way and let the actors do their thing. The camerawork by veteran Martin McGrath’s (Muriel’s Wedding) lets the dance sequences flow so that you can tell the actors didn’t employ stunt doubles. The wide-angled lens for the New York scenes gives the sense that Tara is a little frog in a big pond.
Fans of Dance Academy are likely to be thrilled, but even those never watched the show will find things to appreciate about the movie. The story is formulaic, but the characters and emotions feel real enough to elevate the material.