'High Strung Free Dance': Film Review

Courtesy of GVN Releasing
Bland even by this genre's low standards.
10/11/2019

Young New Yorkers follow their dreams in Michael Damian's dance-oriented melodrama.

A formulaic follow-your-dream pic built around starry-eyed performance sequences, Michael Damian's High Strung Free Dance will play best with those who've never seen a backstage musical before or are still in the thrall of their first teenage encounters with the world of the theater. Lacking the personalities and attitude that have led some other unassuming productions to commercial success, the film has little to boast about beyond some fine dance sequences — none of them more transporting than what can be found easily on small screens.

Harry Jarvis is Charlie, a piano player who lives in the kind of artfully decrepit one-person apartment that — sorry, kids — hasn't been an option for penniless newcomers to Gotham in several decades. He makes bike deliveries for a bakery while fruitlessly looking for auditions.

Not far away, an irrepressible young dancer named Barlow (Juliet Doherty) is being evicted from her too-good-for-reality apartment. Fortunately, two dancers she meets at an audition have a spare room. These two characters, browner than the film's extremely white leads, barely have names, and exist solely to tell Barlow things like "we got your back" and "we're so hot."

The dancers meet while trying out for a musical created by Zander (Thomas Doherty, no relation), who sits midway back in a darkened theater and scrutinizes performers with a piercing gaze he has clearly practiced for many hours in a mirror. Zander is British, prone to tantrums, and appears to have missed the last couple of years of showbiz news about sexual opportunism: Immediately after he casts Barlow as his show's lead dancer, he kisses her. When he later fires her inappropriately, a stage manager explains things to us: "Listen, Zander doesn't mean to be insensitive. He's just so insanely gifted that when he's creating, there's no room left in his brain for anything else." Lest we get the wrong idea, he continues, "and I don't mean to make any excuses for him."

While the actual New York City has been appalled in recent months by a spate of accidents in which cars kill cyclists, in Damian's NYC, distracted drivers are a godsend: Zander's SUV hits Charlie as he dashes to an unpaid gig, leading eventually to Charlie becoming the featured soloist in Zander's show. Charlie's a sweet kid, and is smitten immediately with giant-eyed Barlow. He must watch during rehearsals as she's exploited by her boss, then chastely try to rescue her from heartbreak — wooing her with a Satie composition that should really be retired from the movies for a while, lest we forever associate its beauty with treacle like this.

Damian and his wife/co-writer Janeen Damian pile the script high with glory-of-art cliches, but ignore the textures and credible conflict that allow us to enjoy these romances with a straight face. The only surprising thing in the pic is the number of U-turns the screenplay expects us to accept along the ingenue's path to the spotlight. That zig-zaggy path may delight a few young dance students for whom performing careers remain a far-away prospect, but anybody who's actually been an understudy will more likely be laughing until they're in the parking lot, and not in a good way.

Production companies: Castel Film Studio, Riviera Films
Distributor: Atlas Distribution Company
Cast: Harry Jarvis, Juliet Doherty, Thomas Doherty, Ace Bhatti, Jane Seymour, Jorgen Makena
Director: Michael Damian
Screenwriters-producers: Michael Damian, Janeen Damian
Executive producers: Dave Scott, Jane Seymour, Alex Walton
Director of photography: Viorel Sergovici
Production designer: Mihai Dorobantu
Costume designer: Ana Ioneci
Editor: William Honeyball
Composer: Nathan Lanier
Casting director: Carolyn McLeod

Rated PG, 103 minutes