If the Footloose remake had its own signature dance, it’d be called the Push-Pull, as this hip-to-be-sorta-square movie, much like the small-town teens within it, has a mind for propelling itself toward a progressive future while continually being yanked back by cherished hallmarks of the past. The opposing forces are a direct reflection of the challenge undertaken by director and co-writer Craig Brewer, who only half sells out as he tries to leave an auteur’s mark while remaining faithful to a source that’s loaded with dated, studio-friendly hokum. What results is something stylish, modern, nostalgic, cheesy, and more than a little Frankensteinian, composed of surprisingly uninsulting contemporary elements and iconic re-stagings that reach varying levels of success. The film’s strongest relation to cohesion is that it fits rather perfectly into Brewer’s oeuvre, settling alongside Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan as an unmistakably Southern tale wherein the aural backdrop for the sun-scorched imagery is a potent blend of rough, soulful music and the evocative hum of locusts. The thing is, this time, there’s also Kenny Loggins.
When the film starts, you assume you’re in for a good bit of magical realism, as the dancing teens within whose legs the neon title interweaves rock out to Loggins’s title track at a rowdy keg party. Feet stomp, hips gyrate, and disbelief is suspended while you wrestle with the notion that not just girls, but straight, present-day high school studs would actually spend their Friday night grooving and lip-synching to this song. It’s not the most promising way to kick things off (Brewer uses it to illustrate the deadly, post-party car crash that incites the no-song-and-dance law in the film’s setting of Bomont, Tennessee), but its poor impression doesn’t last long, as Brewer makes quick work of establishing a liberal and plausible adolescent atmosphere in which Big & Rich can be listened to just after Wiz Khalifa, an antagonist is offhandedly chewed out for using the word “fag,” and the black students nearly outnumber the white students in the high school hallways. Indicative of Brewer’s own interests as a young white artist in tune with black culture, it’s an overarching melting-pot approach, and it somehow works, even if it kowtows to the unspoken Hollywood rule that the color not apply to the marquee characters or their families.
The pale and pretty lead couple, renegade Ren MacCormack and preacher’s daughter Ariel Moore, are played by former Justin Timberlake backup dancer Kenny Wormald and Dancing with the Stars alum Julianne Hough. As Ren, a Boston native who rolls into town to live with relatives after his mother dies of leukemia, Wormald resists going full chowdah with his accent, and ably carries a new-kid cool that’s neither alien nor arrogant. Rocking Ray Bans, skinny ties, and dirty jeans, the teen hero has a style that’s mod-meets-backwoods, and it proves integral to Brewer’s aesthetic, making ultra-slick a greasy scene that sees an iPod-toting Ren handily spruce up a clunky VW Beetle (the very car Kevin Bacon steered in the 1984 original). The same goes for Hough, a fantastic dancer whose fluid moves, flowing hair, and cowgirl threads almost begin to act as animated production design. As an actress, Hough unexpectedly nails a trite scene that requires a big emotional outburst, but she otherwise isn’t asked to do much, short of keeping those nimble limbs moving and maintaining a hot-girl elitism until it’s time for third-act purification. The cold aloofness Hough brings doesn’t seem to be entirely her fault, but it nevertheless enhances a lack of character identity, as it’s unclear if Ariel is supposed to be lost and sympathetic, or a contemptible, spoiled slut whose boots were made for comin’ off (she’s been distraught and promiscuous ever since her brother died in that first-reel accident).
Depth of character certainly isn’t something the new Footloose—or the old Footloose, for that matter—has going for it, and that makes things all the worse when the movie descends from a string of high-energy dance sequences with likable personalities (Rabbit Hole‘s Miles Teller one-ups the late Chris Penn as Ren’s rhythm-challenged sidekick) to a sluggish procession of bland speeches from Ariel’s father (a wooden Dennis Quaid), mother (a wasted Andie McDowell), and of course, the law-challenging Ren (who, as anyone who’s seen the Footloose poster knows, shamelessly apes Wormald’s mentor’s famed line from The Social Network). The whole forceful, multilayered idea that this movie is not only about the best time in one’s life, but also of the times, has a way of sabotaging it, for no matter how well Brewer is able to reimagine Ren’s gymnast-on-a-rampage booty-shaking in an abandoned warehouse, or resurrect familiar streamers and confetti for one last swinging barnburner, he can’t fully convince you that he’s crafted something for the current youth of America. Footloose joins a new wave of 1980s remakes that are, on the whole, quite presumptuous—supposed “classics” reworked for a new generation that might not want anything to do with them. Still, in Brewer’s case, he’s able to predominantly avoid condescension and fundamentally entertain, getting a lot of mileage out of the universal truth that the liberation of dance—or, cutting loose, as it were—never goes out of style.