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Kenny Wormald/Paramount Pictures & Spyglass Entertainment

Banned behavior

Movies | Footloose does an admirable job of representing a perennial American debate

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

It would be easy to dismiss Footloose as a glitzy reboot made solely to capitalize on the recent musicals craze among teens. And in many ways it is that.

Rated PG-13, the 2011 version is considerably racier than its predecessor. The swearing quotient has been upped by several degrees as have the skirt hems. Likewise the dancing is far dirtier than anything Kevin Bacon or Lori Singer ever got up to. It also feels far more calculated and commercial. With the possible exception of the cowboy who can't dance, Willard (an absolutely adorable Miles Teller), no one in this cast would look out of place in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. And that includes Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell as the local preacher and his wife.

But while there are few departures from the original script of city kid Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald) fighting small town power brokers to organize a school dance, by bringing the tragedy that drives the action into sharper focus, director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) subtly shifts the themes. The Footloose of the new millennium is less concerned with one young man's battle against a hardnosed minister than his battle against a nanny-state culture.

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Leaving aside for a moment the implausibility of a 21st-century town banning dancing (were there any that did so even in the 20th century?), the story offers a shrewd commentary on how society addresses social ills. Five teenagers make the choice to drink illegally and then drive after a dance and are killed in a car accident. In response their city outlaws dancing among minors. The idea of dancing as a public threat may seem anachronistic, but the mentality behind it isn't.

Footloose represents as clearly as anything on screen recently the philosophical debate that, while always part of the American experiment, has reached a fever pitch in this presidential cycle-how much power should we give the government to save us from ourselves? Where does public interest end and personal responsibility begin? Certainly enacting laws to restrict the behavior of minors is not the same as enacting laws against adults, but in its own humble way, Footloose's dancing ban and the events that prompt it illustrate the crux of today's political divide.

The ironic thing is that these days it is much less likely to be rural religious types pushing for behavioral regulation than crusading urbanites from exactly the kind of secular enclave Ren MacCormack hails from. No small parishes in the Bible Belt have, for example, banned the Happy Meal as the city of San Francisco did in an effort to combat childhood obesity. Nor is it pulpit-thumping preachers full of holy fire calling for bans on light bulbs, football, or SUVs. A more honest reinterpretation of Footloose might have had a metropolitan school administration banning dances on the basis that they reinforce traditional gender roles.

Yet the log-in-the-eye nature of humankind isn't unique to one party, and Brewer does an impressive job honestly exploring the motivations of those who would protect us from ourselves. He receives major help in this department from a pair of surprisingly affecting performances from Quaid and former Dancing with the Stars instructor Julianne Hough.

As a girl who feels unloved by her father and fills the emotional hole with, well, all the usual things teenage girls do, Hough proves she has the acting chops to become a serious player in the movie game. As the old pro at said game, Quaid brings layers of sympathy and intelligence to what could easily have been a one-note antagonist. Rev. Moore doesn't want to be an uptight killjoy, it is just so much easier for him to enforce blanket rules on all kids rather than address the very specific problems going on with his own. Easier to call for legislation than deal with his pain and acknowledge his shortcomings as a father.

With its casual depiction of teenage drinking, grinding, cussing, and general rebellion, Footloose may not be a good choice for the impressionable younger set. But it may be just the thing for a Ron Paul supporter looking for a heart-tugging, boot-stomping night on the town.

Listen to a report on Footloose from the Oct. 29 edition of the radio program The World and Everything in It.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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