Tyler Gage, a high school senior, is a foster kid growing up in a rough Baltimore neighborhood. He spends all his time hanging out with his friend Mac and Mac's little brother, Skinny, going to parties, playing hoops and ... stealing cars for a local chop shop. When the trio break into a neighborhood school and bust the place up a bit while roughhousing, Tyler gets caught and sentenced to do community service at the scene of the crime, the Maryland School for the Arts.
Working as a janitor, Tyler is intrigued by all the musicians, artists and dancers. He's quickly taken with Nora, the school's most talented dancer, while watching her train for her Senior Showcase, an audition for professional dance troupes. When Nora's dance partner gets injured, Tyler volunteers to help her. Having witnessed his raw talent, she takes him on and the two begin to fall for each other as they train for the big show.
Soon, Tyler realizes that dancing might be a way for him break out of life on the streets, but he's torn between his loyalty to Mac and Skinny, and his growing affection for Nora.
The central messages of Step Up are quite positive. Tyler grows to learn that accomplishing anything worthwhile takes lots of hard work and commitment. He's forced to break his pattern of quitting when things get tough. It takes a tragic turn of events, but eventually even the hardest characters own the fact that a life of partying, stealing cars and wasting time is a dead end ("You really believe that this is the best we can be?" Mac asks Tyler. "I wanna be better").
When a girl convinces herself that she needs to accept her boyfriend's wandering eye (and lips), a fellow student hits her with solid criticism: "If you want to be with somebody who doesn't appreciate what he has, that's 100 percent your business. I just thought you'd be smart enough to know you deserve better."
Adult female characters are strong and positive. The school's director is a tough-but-fair leader who wants her students (and even the delinquent Tyler) to succeed. Mac and Skinny are being raised by an involved single mom who works nights to support her boys. Nora's mom, a recent widow unsure her daughter should be spending so much time dancing, eventually supports and encourages Nora in a big way when she needs it most. Tyler also fills the role of big brother to his foster siblings with kindness and generosity.
Nora and other dancers wear tight and/or revealing outfits (bare midriffs, exposed cleavage). Teen girls talk about guys being hot or not. Several couples are seen kissing (sometimes passionately) at parties. Speaking of performing music, one character unintentionally elicits giggles when he says he prefers "playing with himself." Someone jokes that TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres "gets more chicks" than one male character. A couple of other sly gay jabs are also exchanged in a mild, teasing manner.
While some of the hip-hop dancing gets sensual, it's portrayal here is actually quite tame by the standards of today's music videos or even films such as Dirty Dancing and Save the Last Dance.
Tyler gets into a few fistfights, including one at a party in which a gun is drawn by a known thug. A character is shot to death offscreen. The camera arrives to find the body, with a little obvious blood.
Crude or Profane Language
The s-word is heard as many as 10 times, some of which come in the form of lyrics on the soundtrack. A handful of other profanities include "b--ch," "d--n" and "h---."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Tyler's foster dad is seen only sitting on the couch drinking beer; Tyler comments that the man gets drunk regularly. At parties in the neighborhood, cash is exchanged implying, possibly, drugs being dealt.
Other Negative Elements
Tyler, Mac and Skinny steal cars for fun and, presumably, profit. That activity is lumped in with others as part of their admittedly futile life on the streets—and it leads to the aforementioned killing—but no legal consequence is ever paid.
A quick look at the filmmaking team behind Step Up reveals a lot about the movie before the opening scene ever rolls. Take the writer of the Julia Styles ballet-meets-the-street teen dance movie Save the Last Dance and a writer for the teen TV soap The O.C. Add a first-time director who has built her career as a choreographer and cast new teen heartthrob Channing Tatum (seen recently in She's the Man). The result is a film that is all but guaranteed to win over a very particular demographic: dance-loving tween and teen girls.
For everyone else, Step Up has a bit of trouble doing so. The camera often seems to have trouble focusing on the action; the lighting occasionally shifts unexpectedly in the same scene; and the story could not be more worn—we never for a moment doubt how things will turn out. Even a third act tragedy arrives right on cue to move things along to the big finish.
It's not that the film is unwatchable. It features a few nice character moments, particularly those between Tyler and his foster siblings. The young cast is likable, and the supporting players are more interesting than the leads. In the end, it's all about the dancing anyway, right? So is the dancing any good? I have no idea, but there's lots of it.
Which reminds me of one final thought about that target audience. In creating a film which is aimed deep into the hearts of young girls, Step Up's creators should be commended for steering their characters clear of any apparent sexual involvement, and for making an effort to pirouette away from MTV-style hyper-sexual grinding on the dance floor. A bit of language (and even less violence) does unnecessarily tromp on your toes, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.