Despite mixed reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Footloose remains endeared in the hearts of many moviegoers. While most would gravitate toward the performance of Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormack, I find Lori Singer’s Ariel Moore to be the most exciting character around.
A pastor’s daughter on the surface but a rebel at heart, she’s equal parts intriguing and baffling. From the outset, it becomes clear that her father Reverend Moore is a hardliner, pushing for laws that banned rock music and dancing in the small town of Bomont, Utah. It seems like an absurd premise until you learn of the actual inspiration for the film, Elmore City, Oklahoma.
I came into the film with the wrong set of expectations. I knew that Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormack was going to shake things up, pushing for a dance revolution to upset the reverend and the town elders. But I also thought that Ren would be the corrupting force pushing Ariel away from her father and her conservative upbringing. To my delight, this wasn’t so.
We start right after Sunday Service is over, where Ariel pulls off a crazy stunt resembling that Jean-Claude Van Damme commercial, where he’s doing a split between two Volvo trucks. In this edition, though, Ariel’s wedged between her friend’s car and her boyfriend’s pickup truck, removing all the calm and zen you might have witnessed with the Van Damme advert. Instead, we have a more manic rendition filled with fear and excitement.
After the daredevil stunt, she’s the first person in the movie to openly flout the no dancing law, taking out her radio and blasting music right outside a diner, and of course, the youth of the neighborhood join in for a rather charming musical sequence until the reverend appears. At this point, it’s incredibly apparent that the town’s youth fears the reverend, including Ariel. She is a rebel, but more of a closeted rebel until Ren shows up. Ariel displays all the signs of someone trying to break free from an orthodox upbringing, looking for the right catalyst to complete her transformation.
This presents a rather interesting scenario. Does Ren change Ariel, or does Ariel change him? Ren is a rebel in his own right and takes the initiative to repeal the stringent laws of the local community, but the crazy thing is that Ariel is crazier than him throughout the film.
She’s the one with grey areas as opposed to a black and white persona. It isn’t hard to figure Ren out. He’s a decent guy from the city and loves to dance. He carries his own baggage through parental abandonment from his father, but his behavior isn’t destructive. He keeps to himself and does his own thing, much to the annoyance of most people in the film, even if that’s just playing the radio in his car. I know. Crazy.
Ariel’s the opposite. She has a volatile relationship with her boyfriend/casual fling Chuck, whose sexism and misogyny bubbles up throughout the movie. This, too, could be taken as an action to oppose her father, who’s intent on parading her as the ideal “trophy daughter.” Either way, Chuck fails to keep Ariel’s attention once Ren appears, and her move away from the resident antagonist isn’t a clear-cut breakup. She relies on the age-old ghosting technique as she becomes enamored by Ren’s distant and nonchalant attitude, leading to a rather violent breakup scene where she receives a few cuts and bruises, courtesy of Chuck.
Once this episode is over, the Ren and Ariel relationship is free to begin, and this, too, has its own twist. She’s chasing him. Not the other way around. A welcome change for once. And Ariel doesn’t seem to have any boundaries when it comes to getting Ren’s attention, which includes planting herself on the rail tracks while a train comes rushing towards her. Crazy, I know. You even wonder at times if Ren should hang out with her at all. To reverse a phrase used mostly on guys: she’s nothing but trouble.
That is until we learn a little more about the history of Bomont and the creation of the “no dancing” law. The death of Ariel’s brother in a driving accident after a night of dancing is what propels the tough stance by Reverend Moore, prompting him to take a position that alienates him from his family, mostly Ariel but not excluding his wife.
What follows is an unexpected character study. Writer Dean Pitchford and Director Herbert Ross do a decent job of humanizing both father and daughter, opting not to present these two as outright caricatures. Instead, we see the reverend’s struggles in conversations he has with his wife, and the constant tug and pull between father and daughter as they attempt to reconcile their differences.
The reverend isn’t an outright asshole. His Draconian principles spring out of grief and sorrow, so he’s not a one-dimensional villain like Chuck. He has moments where he’s the hero, one prime instance being when he stops the wholesale burning of books at the town library. These situations lay bare the struggle within him, as he seeks to understand and distinguish the perceived objects of evil and sin, whether that’s books or rock music.
Ariel has her own transformation, sparked by the introduction of Ren, but aided and abetted by confrontations with her father. She has an explosive personality that is the central attraction of this film, pushing the narrative forward at the right moments, whether that’s by choosing the right fights to have with her father or by picking the right Bible verses for Ren to use at the town hall meeting, weaponizing the very tool used by the town elders to keep Bomont under their watchful gaze. She strives for the typical teenage life most Americans would enjoy and pushes back against the shackles imposed by her community, using Ren as a proxy to do so.
There isn’t a great deal of dancing in Footloose or a substantial list of compelling characters to follow. In my eyes, Ren’s a straight shooter and quite predictable. You know how he thinks and what his next move is going to be. However, Lori Singer’s Ariel is the exception, presenting a teenager who’s set on enjoying the little things in life, but is willing to cross the line to achieve them. Footloose is worth a watch just for her.