Step Sisters review: This Netflix film bites off more than what it can possibly chew as a dance drama
Step Sisters is a movie that should have appealed to a bunch of different people. And yet it fails to appeal to anyone at all.
Hollywood has always loved fraternities and sororities. In fact, there is an entire sub-genre of movies which revolves around these social groups which exist in American universities. There is an audience which likes them and while they rarely get critical acclaim, they are usually fun to watch.
These movies are mostly comedies with little in terms of an overall message. They almost always show students having fun, said students getting into a problem which involves them getting expelled and then them banding together under the protagonist to solve the problem. They are simple, require little brains to watch and are perfectly complemented by a tub of ice cream.
The best of these (Legally Blonde and Van Wilder) manage to get genuine laughs through smart writing and have a feel-good ending. The worst of these (The House Bunny and So Undercover) are complete messes with tacky jokes and a lot of cringe-worthy moments.
Step Sisters lands somewhere in the middle of the band. Which is a pity because it had clear potential.
The basic story revolves around Jamilah, a black woman who is on her way to Harvard Law School but must train white sorority girls in stepping (a percussive dance which has largely been practiced by black fraternities and sororities) to ensure her admission. The white sorority girls are stereotypical sorority girls who are only interested in “blow-drying their hair, getting skinny and getting wasted”. Jamilah begins whipping them into shape but in the process starts losing her black friends.
So far so good. It is clearly a chick flick and manages to make the easy jokes about college without being tacky. But as soon as the set-up is in place and the actual story starts, it all goes terribly wrong.
Quite simply, the movie tries to do too much. It tries to deal with race, cultural appropriation, friendships, relationships and parenting while actually being a dance movie. The scenes and dialogue about race are uncomfortable because they seek to minimize problematic issues into bite-sized lines. The relationship storyline is ridiculously unsatisfying as the movie serves up not one but two half-baked romances. And no, they do not add up to a complete love story.
Jamilah’s character is pretty underdeveloped too. We are just supposed to believe that she is a tough, capable person without actually ever seeing what she has done that makes her so popular on campus. Her relationship with her parents is shown to be troubled but the best reason the movie gives for that is that they expect her to work hard. The entire character arc is unsatisfying and this is the case for the main character! Unsurprisingly, the other characters are pretty one-dimensional and seem incapable of critical thinking as they can be convinced of practically anything in two sentences.
Finally, it is always baffling when a movie, where all the main characters are female, is made by a male director which is the case here.
The movie does redeem itself in some places with neat dance sequences and at the very least, will leave you with an interest in the dance form of stepping. The acting is fairly decent across the board and while it does not commit to it entirely, the film does show us yet another interesting way of depicting technology in cinema.
The thing a lot of people don’t realise about movies is that no film can be objectively good. Every movie plays to a certain audience and if it works for them then it is a good movie. So your artsy friend who watches Godard might turn up their nose at American Pie but you are allowed to love it for the brainless fun it is.
Step Sisters is a movie that should have appealed to a bunch of different people. And yet it fails to appeal to anyone at all. It loses the crowd which came for the brainless fun because it tries to tackle many tough issues. And it loses the crowd which wanted to see it deal with the tough issues because it completely fails to do those issues any justice.
Sadly, this is a movie many will start but few will finish.
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