Had I seen it before: No.
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Writer: Carol Heikkinen
Where you can stream it now: Netflix or IMDb TV (free w/ads)
What IMDb says: A group of 12 teenagers from various backgrounds enroll at the American Ballet Academy in New York to make it as ballet dancers and each one deals with the problems and stress of training and getting ahead in the world of dance.
What? There were 12 of them? I count like 6ish. Zoe Saldana, the two blonde white girls, the brunette white girl, and the guy who’s kind of a love interest for one of the blondes. Oh I guess there was Sergei, who seemed cool, but it’s not like the movie really focused on him. Like my most liberal interpretation is that it was about 8 ballet dancers, plus a couple of the instructors, but they’re not teenagers. Are they? I dunno, I’m still not entirely sure how old the students were supposed to be. Anyway on with the review!
Why I picked it: I saw it was leaving Netflix soon.
What I liked: The dance scenes were actually pretty fun. I feel like a lot of the budget went towards getting actual ballet talent for the movie, and while that has negative consequences elsewhere, it does really pay off in the dance sequences. They’re shot and edited well enough to actually showcase the dancing, which I appreciate.
What I didn’t like: Virtually everything else about the movie was bad. It takes quite a while to develop any kind of story. The beginning is a lot of “Hey look! Dancing!” with little attempts to give each dancer a distinctive personality. Zoe Saldana is sassy, but that’s it.
And even though I know most movies that have an ensemble this large can struggle with character development, most still do a better job than this. Each character is given at most, one personality trait. Zoe Saldana is a sassy rebel who backtalks people! Brunette girl has an overbearing mother! The other blonde girl works really hard but her technique isn’t as good as the competition. Some characters don’t even get that much. Sergei is from Russia, but beyond that I know nothing about him. We don’t really get any meaningful exploration into why each girl dancer is the way that they are, and any growth they might experience feel arbitrary rather than organic.
I actually kind of resent the idea that Girl With Overbearing Mother (I think her name is Maureen? Maybe?) basically just… gets over an eating disorder and completely changes her life ambition because her love interest told her to. The notion that maybe she’s only chasing this dream because her mother to COULD HAVE been something she gradually realized on her own over the course of the entire film. We could’ve gotten smaller signs that she didn’t enjoy dance along the way. Then her decision to quit might have made more sense.
We don’t get that. Sure, we the audience understand that her mom’s a bitch, but I really didn’t get any sense that Maureen herself didn’t want to dance professionally prior to her quitting. Instead we get one speech from her new boyfriend saying “omg you’re being super unhealthy for the sake of dance, maybe you should reconsider that?” And then she’s like “yup, not gonna dance anymore.” One does not simply “get over” an eating disorder. Also, the idea that maybe she could work on developing healthier eating habits while still pursuing a dance career just wasn’t a possibility in this universe. It’s growth because the script mandated it, not because that growth was a natural continuation based on previously established story beats.
Same goes with Zoe Saldana. She’s a hella talented dancer but wow she has SUCH AN ATTITUDE PROBLEM. Her arc is supposed to be about her learning the value of humility and hard work and in the end she’s a better dancer for it. But most average viewers don’t have the technical knowledge needed to notice any real improvement in her final performance vs. her dancing in the beginning of the movie. She’s a great dancer, and I guess her “victory” if you can call it that is that she learned to respect and obey the ballet school and its traditions. And why? Why does she suddenly say “hmm maybe I was wrong and I should reevaluate my attitude towards dance?” Because she didn’t get a part in some workshop recital shenanigans. She’s a new woman now, thanks to good old-fashioned rejection. Does she learn the value of being in an ensemble, and that all dancers are necessary to pull off a good show? Does she work really hard and earn a bigger part in a subsequent performance? No, because all she had to do was just adopt an entirely new personality and then step into a role after Girl With Overbearing Mother quits.
The closest we get to character growth that actually makes sense is the story with that one blonde girl (not enough character growth for me to remember her name, but please bear with me). After being told throughout the movie that she wasn’t good enough to make it as a ballet dancer, she finds confidence by learning other styles of dance and incorporating them into her classical ballet. Part of this comes by way of a romance (sort of) with a choreographer who shares her love of jazz dancing who casts her in his dance fusion spectacular. Throughout the ordeal she learns to not measure her worth by whether or not Establishment Ballet finds her dancing satisfactory, and realizes she’s too good for the choreographer. Her fuck-off speech to the ballet academy people at the end was certainly forced and on-the-nose, but it was also the closest thing this movie had to a moment of growth that felt earned. I suppose this was the “A plot” of this movie if I had had to guess, but the forays into other plots that had such little payoff kept this story from being all it could be.
That’s one of the many unfortunate things about Center Stage. Pretty much any one of these plot lines could have potentially been a really great movie. A dancer struggling with parental pressure and an eating disorder could be a gripping drama. A naturally talented dancer learning the to deal with rejection and figuring out the value of dedication, persistence, and humility could have worked. And a dancer falling for her choreographer only to find enough confidence through dancing to move on from him in the end could be a hella cute romp. But trying to do all three in one movie means none of these plotlines really gets to have the tone that would make the most sense for the narrative, and none get to flesh out their characters as is necessary to make their endpoints feel satisfying.
One of the movies sort of in the same vein that’s far better and far more popular is Bring It On, also from 2000. Part of why Bring It On works is that the story is relatively simplistic. A cheer squad is training for nationals, and learns that most of the cheers and routines from last year were stolen from another school. It’s not like there’s zero subplots, but the movie is focused on a central protagonist and it becomes quite clear quite early that winning nationals is the main goal at hand. stem This streamlined approach allows for so much more room for scenes that are just funny, or scenes that strengthen characters and their relationships with each other but don’t necessarily move “The Plot” anywhere. The movie is charming in part because it didn’t bite off more than it could chew, and so it can take more time to breathe and just be charming. Center Stage had virtually no story early on, yet by the end there were so many plates spinning in the air that every second is frantically scrambling to keep those plates spinning. They know they have to get each character to the desired end point by the end of the runtime, and they don’t care how big a grand jeté it takes to get there.
Will I watch it again: Possibly? It has enough of a so-bad-it’s-good quality that I could see myself forcing other friends to watch it, because that’s just the kind of friend I am.
Who would enjoy it?: People who like watching actual ballet dancing. If you don’t care about plot, that’s an added bonus!
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