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‘Work It’: Sabrina Carpenter dances like she never danced before in breezy teen comedy

Lightweight Netflix film focuses on an obsessed student who needs just the right moves to get into Duke.

Quinn (Sabrina Carpenter, third from right) forms her own dance team to give herself an edge in college applications in “Work It.”
Netflix

“Albert Einstein once said, ‘Dancers are the athletes of God.’ Kim Kardashian once said, ‘Lighting is everything.’ ” – Sabrina Carpenter’s Quinn Ackerman in “Work It.”

The dance-happy teenager played by Sabrina Carpenter in the Netflix original movie “Work It” has almost nothing in common with the homeless nomad teenager Sabrina Carpenter played in “The Short History of the Long Road” from earlier this summer, save for the dead-dad factor.

In the latter film, Carpenter was left on her own and embarked on a pilgrimage to meet her biological mother after her father suddenly died. In the lightweight and goofy and breezy “Work It,” Carpenter’s Quinn Ackerman is a high school student obsessed with getting into Duke University because her Dead Dad Did Duke and loved every minute of it and never stopped talking about it (fun!), and Quinn believes it will make her helicopter mom (Naomi Sneickus) oh so happy if she follows in her Dead Dad’s footsteps and becomes a Blue Devil as well.

One problem, as Quinn learns from the feisty and colorful admissions counselor Veronica Ramirez (Michelle Buteau): it’s not enough to load up on the Advanced Placement courses and have a 4.0 GPA and play the cello and volunteer at an old folks’ home — you gotta do something special to stand out from all the other applicants with similar credentials. Quinn blurts out she’s joining her school’s legendary competitive dance team, the pink-clad Thunderbirds (shout-out to the T-Birds and Pink Ladies from “Grease”), and for some inexplicable reason, Ms. Ramirez nearly explodes from excitement over this piece of news. If Quinn Ackerman can prove herself to be a competitive dancer, the keys to Duke University are hers!

One slight hitch: Quinn can’t dance a lick. She was the lighting director for the Thunderbirds but she recently blew that gig, and when she tries out for the actual dance team, the troupe’s talented but dictatorial leader, one Isaiah Pembroke (Kieynan Lonsdale), who has recently changed his first name to Juilliard, laughs her out of the auditorium. Quinn vows to start her own dance team to challenge the Thunderbirds and compete in the famous “Work It” competition. That’ll show ’em!

In the tradition of “Fame” and “Footloose” and “Step Up” and what was that Jessica Alba dance movie, “Honey,” we get lots of “impromptu” dance numbers, as Quinn recruits her best friend, Jasmine Hale (Liza Koshy), to quit the Thunderbirds and join her new squad, which will be coached by the dashing and mysterious and hunky Jake Taylor (Jordan Fisher), who gave up competitive dancing after a devastating knee injury but just might find redemption and even romance if he teams up with Quinn Ackerman. (Note that all the main players in “Work It” have been given full names; that’s how we know they’re fully developed, three-dimensional individuals and not paper-thin stock characters.)

There’s little in the way of originality in “Work It,” but there’s a fresh, upbeat, infectious vibe to the silliness, thanks in large part to the talented and likable cast of young actors. Sabrina Carpenter was believable as a world-weary teenager living on the far fringes of society in “A Short History of the Long Road,” and she carries the day with her enthusiasm, her determination, and yes, her footloose and fancy-free dance moves, in “Work It.”