Feel the Beat (2020)
Take your chance. Make your move.
Mostly known for her role as Evil Queen’s daughter Evie in Disney’s Descendants (2015-19) series, actress-singer Sofia Carson makes her Netflix debut with the feel-good musical drama Feel the Beat. From the outset, the film’s story about a snooty up-and-coming dancer being forced to return to her hometown to melt her hardened heart feels about as generic as its stock title. Feel the Beat, however, stands out thanks to a wonderfully diverse cast, some splashy dance numbers, and solid direction by Australian filmmaker Elissa Down, The Black Balloon (2008) — it’s cute, touching, funny, and above all fun. While the picture certainly won’t resonate with everyone, it’ll probably speak loudest to pre-teens, who maybe grew up with Carson’s Descendants, and those open enough to give this well-made, upbeat entertainer a spin.
The movie follows April (Sofia Carson), a stuck-up Broadway dancer living in New York who’s about to hit the big time. She’s a talented performer who’s worked hard to make it to the top, now all she needs to do is nail a major audition. On the way to the theater, April steals a taxi from an old lady and leaves her out in the cold, wet rain. Karma, however, comes a-knockin’ when April finds out that the old woman she’d stolen the cab from is none other than Ruth Zimmer (Pamela Macdonald), one of the jury members at her audition and one of the biggest names in the Broadway scene. Although April tries hard to convince Ruth to give her a second chance, she accidentally pushes the old lady off stage and gets blacklisted from the dancing community in the Big Apple — and to make matters worse, a video recording of the bungle goes viral. Now, unable to get a job in NYC and pay her rent, April begrudgingly packs her bags and heads back to her hometown of Wisconsin to bunk with her blue-collar father, Frank (Enrico Colantoni), until she can figure out her next steps.
Once in the sticks, April bumps into her old dance teacher Miss Barb (a charming Donna Lynne Champlin), who gives her a chance to coach the town’s struggling dance troupe, New Hope, in order to get them ready for a big upcoming show. While April initially declines, she reconsiders after she discovers that the competition is being judged by Welly Wong (Rex Lee), a powerful New York producer who could potentially save her career — there’s a ‘Teacher Feature’ performance in the contest, which’ll allow April to showcase her talents firsthand. Now, April will need to learn patience, kindness, and empathy if she wishes to whip the pigtailed armatures into shape and get them ready for the ‘Dance Dance Dance Dance Competition.’
Written by scribes Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku, Beautiful Boy (2010), Feel the Beat isn’t just a dance movie à la School of Rock (2003) or Pitch Perfect (2012); instead, it’s a hopeful coming-of-age story that emphasizes that while ambition can be a good thing, being a nice person is much more important, and shouldn’t be sacrificed for any set of dreams. The whole thing, however, hinges on lead Sofia Carson, who’s definitely up for the task. While she excels at playing the self-centered protagonist, an egotistical person that would literally step over anyone to achieve her goals, she’s also able to convey the change that the hardened dancer goes through and sell the transition, with April smoothing out her rough edges, taking down her walls, and becoming a better, much more likeable person.
With that in mind, there are a couple of side plots that do an excellent job of illustrating April’s growth. The first involves April reconnecting with her former high school sweetheart Nick (Wolfgang Novogratz), whom she callously broke up with over a text before moving to NYC. Throughout their encounters, stars Carson and Novogratz do a solid job in bringing the pair’s history to life — we can see it in their many awkward moments, snarky remarks, and general rapport. Furthermore, the couple share a palpable on-screen chemistry that doesn’t feel forced and helps bring their messy past to life. The second subplot revolves around Nick’s younger sister Sarah (Eva Hauge), who used to idolize April but resents her for leaving Wisconsin without a word, and now happens to be a part of New Hope. Again, the relationship portrayed here feels very real, honest, and raw, thanks to both performers’ fantastic work.
Feel the Beat also gets extra points for its refreshing casting. It’s comforting to see a diverse group of youngsters portrayed as our child dancers — there are girls of different shapes, sizes, and colors, several with interracial parents. It’s a true representation of today’s multicultural society. The highlight is deaf YouTuber Shaylee Mansfield who plays deaf dancer Zuzu, whom the entire group communicates with via sign language, without anybody making a big deal of it. You might also notice another YouTuber Johanna Colón, who became a star after her rendition of Aretha Franklin’s ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ went viral in 2015.
Elsewhere, Dennis Andres is a treat (and threatens to steal the entire flick) as Coach Buzz, an overenthusiastic footy instructor that’s psyched when he finds out that his young son Dicky (Justin Caruso Allan) — who initially comes into the studio while his dad coaches and quietly watches from the sidelines — is, in fact, an excellent dancer. Brandon Kyle Goodman, The Blackout (2019), kills it as April’s flamboyant friend Deco, who totally owns a scene where he turns up to the Atlantic City finals looking fabulous and clashes with Tony-award winning actress Marissa Jaret Winokur over a pair of missing heels. Furthermore, while Deco is both black and gay, there’s no racial or gender identity stuff, he’s kinda just there. No fuss.
On top of all this, the movie features a number of flashy, well-choreographed dance ditties, bright, colorful training montages, and a stack of glitzy performances, which are all brought to life wonderfully by filmmaker Down. It’s also worth mentioning the first-rate costume design by Shelley Mansell, Camp Rock (2008), which really brightens the proceedings.
Ultimately, when the curtain falls, Feel the Beat doesn’t do anything new yet offers a sunny distraction in these dark times. It’s a refreshingly fun film that gives young’uns hope and shows them how love and compassion are what you really need to succeed in this world. Here’s hoping we’ll get to see April and the New Hope kids again, and soon.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie