I think it’s about friendship and the heart that really happens between these young kids as they realize they can stand up for themselves. There hasn’t really been any teenager movies lately—especially dance movies—that give that platform for young people to experience.
When young rebel Ren (Kenny Wormald) rolls into Bomont, Georgia at the beginning of Footloose, he needs a job. His Uncle Wes (Ray McKinnon) sets him up at “the cotton mill up on Chuloma.” It’ll be good for the boy to have a little structure after school, Wes reasons, and he can contribute to the household earnings as well, which will help, you know, because of the recession.
Wes and his wife Lulu (Kim Dickens) mention the recession a few times in this new version of the 1984 film, so you know that it’s set now. A few other details reveal the changed times, like the kids’ cell phones and the cars Wes sells down at his lot. And it’s hard not to notice that Wes’ friend Andy Beamis (L. Warren Young), the one who owns the cotton mill, is now black. This casting choice seems another sort of updating, as there were no black faces in the first film’s unnamed midwestern town, and it’s a choice amplified by the appearance as well of Andy’s son Woody (Ser’Darius Blain) as the football team captain, his barely speaking girlfriend Etta (Enisha Brewster), and their vibrant Latina classmate Rusty (Ziah Colon).
Their inclusion suggests that someone involved in making the new Footloose (directed by Craig Brewer, who made Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan) thought that a ruralish Georgia circa 2011 must acknowledge some US history and even integration. Still, the fact that Andy owns the cotton mill gives pause.
It could be that this pause helps you to appreciate the casting irony. This black man owns the means of production, you see. And he’s prone to sarcasm: when the Boston-born Ren walks through the mill on his first day and mouths off about what he expects here, that he’ll be learning the “three Rs: readin’, writin’, and redneckery,” Andy forgives him, noting, “You’re young and from out of town,” and is, essentially, displaying his own sort of redneckery. You know the kid’s primary function in the film, of course, is to teach the smalltown folks to appreciate dancing, a universal love of movement and self-expression the Bomont elders have deemed devilish and urban. Here Andy points out that Ren might have his own educational curve.
That’s not to say the film delivers that curve in the way Andy sets up. According to the film’s thudding logic, the fact that Ren’s a “Yankee” means he doesn’t need schooling on race and racism. Indeed, Footloose goes further: all the kids are “colorblind,” as they dance to Cee Lo and Three Six Mafia as happily as they do to Big & Rich and Kenny Loggins (though his title tune is actually performed here by Blake Shelton). No one mentions prejudice or oppression except as it applies to kids and rebels and out-of-towners and dancers. Sure, individuals display their own coded sorts of bigotry, specifically, Chuck (Patrick John Flueger), the troublemaking 20something stock car driver, who is more or less redneckery incarnate. But he’s the villain, competing directly with Ren for the attentions of Ariel (Julianne Hough), the sinuously gyrating daughter of dance-banning preacher Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid).
As much as Reverend Moore is set against Ren, having led the charge to ban dancing years before the newcomer’s arrival, the film allows him some motivation (and even shows it, unlike the first film, opening with the awful car crash that kills the preacher’s son). Chuck’s just a rube, cruel and cocky and violent too. Not only does he beat up Ariel and black her eye, but he also engages Ren in a series of masculine contests, including a demolition derby and, inevitably, some fisticuffs. (Here, Woody shows up with his teammates to save the day; the fact that the black kid is not only Bomont’s best footballer and best dancer, but also its best fighter must be added irony, right?)
That’s not to say that all the rednecks in the new Footloose are abject villains. Indeed, Ren’s instant best friend on his arrival is Willard (Miles Teller), uniformed in cowboy hat and, on occasion, overalls, a sincerely nice kid who has to learn to dance and also comes to express his affection for Rusty. He’s the movie’s go-to comic relief, as well as its best case for lovable redneck rehab (see especially, the scene lifted from 1984, as he practices his new moves to Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For the Boy”).
If Willard embodies Footloose‘s best wish, that everyone can be made better by dancing, and Ren and Ariel its obligatory romantic cliché (as furiously as they dance, together and apart, they are, in the end, the dullest couple in view), Andy and Woody and Rusty’s parts are less immediately clear. They’re not history lessons per se, they’re not only backdrop, but they’re also not fully developed characters either (as supporting cast members, they support the white boy’s righteous cause). They do indicate that times have changed, yes, but it’s hard to tell how that’s affected them.