You can’t compare campy dance movies with any other genre. They’re so single-focused in their ambition – choreograph great dance sequences, perform said dance sequences, and share said dance sequences with the world – that it’s almost impossible to judge them for anything else.
So maybe it’s OK that High Strung has horrible dialogue, barely developed characters, and a central love story that has absolutely zero energy, because the dance scenes are so good that you’ll remember them regardless. Maybe first-person narration like “The music is always there, burning inside me” and dance teachers barking out lines like “No excuses! Pull yourself together! Now get out there and dance!” are forgivable when there are also subway-set dance-offs between a dance crew dressed up like construction workers and another in all-black street gear. Maybe High Strung isn’t really that bad, considering! Maybe!
The film mainly follows two pretty, young white people following their dreams in New York City: The beautiful blonde Ruby (Keenan Kampa), attending the Manhattan Conservatory of the Arts on a scholarship, and the roguish Brit Johnnie (Nicholas Galitzine), who is in the country illegally and busking in the subway to pay his rent. Ruby loves dance and is exceptional at ballet while Johnnie is an extremely talented and edgy violin player, but their approaches to the arts are different: She’s a meticulous perfectionist, driven to improve all of her skills; he’s a rule breaker who thinks a formal musical education is a waste of time and money. Nevertheless, they fall in love!
Come on – you knew there was no other way High Strung would go, right? But before Ruby and Johnnie realize they’re perfect for each other, she has to struggle through contemporary dance classes and provide support for her hard-partying roommate, and he has to deal with his violin being stolen and then befriend a dance crew that lives in the apartment below his. Anything is possible in New York City!
And although High Strung’s ultimate climax – a music and dance competition that pits underdogs Ruby and Johnnie against the conservatory’s bitchy, classist top dancer and violin player, respectively – goes about exactly the way you would expect, there are good moments amid all the clichés. Pretty much any scene with the various dance crews is excellent, but the ballet classes in which the wonderfully gifted Kampa gets a chance to show her stuff are also impressive, and a violin faceoff between Johnnie and his rival – set during a fancy dinner party where most of the rich guests look on is discomfort, and Johnnie’s friends explain, “We’re street dancers, we’re always pissing someone off” – is hilarious.
The key to movies of this genre is commitment, and High Strung certainly has it; probably half of the movie’s runtime is dedicated to dance sequences, musical performances, and other legitimate arts-related stuff. But the other things, like Johnnie’s brush-ins with the law and Ruby’s drama with her roommate, drag the story down. Johnnie and Ruby are barely characters anyway, with almost zero personality, so why give them other subplots? Just let him play the violin and let her dance and we’ll be good! Exchanges like “I don’t even know you.” “Do you want to?” are only wasting time!
Alas, High Strung doesn’t strike the exact right balance. But most of its moves, as corny as you would expect from this genre, are still pretty good.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Guttenbergs