Xenia Goodwin in Dance Academy, the feature film based on the ABC TV series of the same name. Photograph: StudioCanal
Some of us look back on the turbulence of our university years with a mixture of horror and nostalgia, recalling the title of Errol Flynn’s autobiography. For others, like Tara Webster (Xenia Goodwin), their wicked, wicked ways encompass those diabolical occasions when they neglected to pick up kombucha and activated almonds on the way home from dance class.
Or, in the case of her fame-hungry friend Kat (Alicia Banit), when a social media post generates bad engagement – as in a topless selfie that derails her credibility (who would have thought?) as the star of a squeaky-clean kids show. This puts Kat in a pantheon of badly behaving children’s television personalities, Death to Smoochy’s Rainbow Randolph leading the modern charge.
Dance Academy, director Jeffrey Walker’s feature adaptation of ABC TV’s massively successful moppet soap opera about teen dance prodigies seeking stardom, maintains the series’ knack for unpacking issues relevant to young people in ways that resist talking down to them, though it does have something to say about smartphone-powered digi self-love and narcissism in the iGeneration.
The film is about first-world privilege generally and the perils of social media addiction specifically – and how the dopamine-boosting hits of online gratification (likes, hearts, shares) distract from the natural inevitability of age and death. When old buddy and former boyfriend Ben (Thomas Lacey) informs Tara, the protagonist, that his leukaemia (or #leukaemia) has returned, she tells him straight: “It’s not the best status update.”
A summary of her present situation wouldn’t make the best status update either. Set 18 months after the end of the third season, Tara remains determined to succeed as a dancer. Every time she makes an ambitious body-stretching manoeuvre, however, a shocking sensation reverberates up her spine, accompanied by traumatic visions – the domain of a black and white horror movie – that pound the inside of her skull.
Hey, me too – though admittedly I don’t have the same, or any, coulda-been-a-contender ballerina backstory. Nor one so reminiscent of Christian Bale’s final Batman movie, where bad guy Bane snapped his spine. Likewise, on the night Tara auditioned for a contract with the National Ballet Company (retold in menacing flashback), she broke her back. The enemy this time was not a misanthropic terrorist but a stray marble; the sort of freak accident that wouldn’t look out of place in a Final Destination movie.
Just as the Caped Crusader opted to rebuild his life through grit and rigorous physical training – rather than exacting revenge through the less than heroic court system – Tara similarly drops a lawsuit that could have given her one million big ones. The catch for accepting the spondoolies would have been declaring she can never dance again, thus forfeiting any chance of a comeback.
Her decision is perfect for a never-say-never underdog story, though it begins to look like a #fail when Tara’s attempt to rejoin the dance company is scotched by the once supportive artistic director (Miranda Otto). She absconds to bustling New York, where the spit-polished cinematography of Martin McGrath (who recently shot Jack Irish: Dead Point and UnIndian) behaves like a distracted tourist, suggesting the cinematic equivalent of a brochure from the visitors centre or an I ❤ NY T-shirt.
The intensity of the Big Apple prompts Tara to sojourn to recharge-the-batteries Austin, where things progress in the manner of a Nicholas Sparks tearjerker. The traumatised dancer and the terminally-ill-but-still-fabulous Ben train on the sly, against the doctor’s orders, in a sleekly renovated barn. Even once humble settings have been scaled up for first-world privilege; in this world, “old” is a synonym for “rustic chic”.
For a film called Dance Academy, there isn’t a whole lot of dancing – and the staging of the scenes where characters do cut a rug is far from inspiring (also, far from cinematic). Like any soap opera, the focus is on relationships.
Where Flashdance showed a battler using dance to scramble up the socioeconomic ladder (in a world made of steel, made of stone), Dance Academy’s performers have a good view from the top of the pyramid, knocking back fat lump sums and training in swish harbourside locations, using dance as a means of maintaining cultural relevance. Tara’s formative life in quaint regional Victoria couldn’t feel further off in the distance.
The film is Black Swan meets Mrs Carey’s Concert meets The Stars in Our Eyes meets The Baby-Sitters Club, with the aforementioned sniff of The Dark Knight Rises. Subversive entertainment it ain’t. But nor is this well-paced yarn – with pleasing albeit narrowly scoped performances from a perky cast – bereft of pleasantries and surprises.
- ^ Errol Flynn’s autobiography (pictures.abebooks.com)
- ^ Death to Smoochy’s Rainbow Randolph (www.youtube.com)
- ^ final Batman movie (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ Jack Irish: Dead Point (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ UnIndian (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ world made of steel, made of stone (www.youtube.com)
- ^ Dance Academy (www.danceacademymovie.com.au)