- Craig Brewer
In the small rural town of Bomont, Georgia, a group of teens is having a wild party with music, drinking, and dancing. Five of them decide to leave and get in a car together. Bobby Moore (Blair Jasin), the driver is not entirely sober. While crossing a bridge he leans over to kiss his girlfriend, loses control of the car, and runs head-on into a truck, resulting in a huge explosion, an upside-down car, and five dead teens.
A few weeks later, the grieving and fanatical Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) is delivering a Sunday sermon; he feels the towns despair over the tragic deaths of five high school seniors, including his son, Bobby, in an auto accident the previous night after an evening of teenage drinking and dancing. Soon afterwards, the town council votes to ban partying, loud music and all forms of public dancing. Ariel (Julianne Hough), his young daughter, is upset and not happy about any of it.
THREE YEARS LATER
Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) gets off the Greyhound bus in Bomont. He has arrived from Boston to live with his Uncle Wes (Ray McKinnon) and his wife and two kids, as Ren’s divorced mother has recently died. He moves in his uncles “office”, and is reminded by his uncle that this isnt Boston and adds: “so, no getting into trouble and to make sure you keep up in school.” Wes tells him that his neighbors cotton gin has saved a job for him, and that with the economy the way it is, hes lucky to have it. Uncle Wes gives him an old, broken-down VW, and says if he can fix it, he can have it. Ren gets to work, and soon enough, he has the car running. He takes it for a drive, with the stereo blaring, and is promptly pulled over by a local cop. When he asks why he was pulled over, the cop says for loud music and disturbing the peace. Ren talks back to the unfriendly cop, and can’t believe that loud music is illegal here. The cop writes him up a citation.
On Sunday, the family goes to church, and Ren catches the eye of a pretty girl, Ariel. Shes the daughter of Reverend Shaw Moore and his quiet wife, Vi (Andie MacDowell). After church, Ariel tells her parents she has a school project to work on and will spend the night with her girlfriend, Rusty (Ziah Colon). Its a lie, as they have no project, and they just want to go to town and see Chuck Cranston, her boyfriend (Patrick John Flueger) to race his car at the track.
At school Monday, Ren meets Rusty and Ariel, and they comment on his more city-like attire. He literally bumps into a camo-wearing cowboy, and they verbally spar, until the cowboy laughs and introduces himself as Willard (Miles Teller). Willard informs Ren about the deaths of the students three years ago, and how the town went crazy and outlawed loud music, dancing and parties for kids. There isn’t even a high school prom anymore. After school, Ren goes to the cotton gin, and starts his job.
Later that night, the high school kids go and hang out at the concession stand at the drive-in movie theatre, listen to music and dance. Ren sees Rusty and Ariel there. Ariel dances and Ren is obviously attracted, and she likes that. Chuck sees it and is jealous. In comes Reverend Moore, and the pulls the plug on the music. Ariel is embarrassed and angry with her father.
The next day, Ren goes to court for his ticket, and his Uncle Wes speaks up for him. Since Ren has a job, he is eligible for a suspended jail sentence, but must not have any other violations in the meantime.
Ariel pays Ren a visit and says that Chuck wants him to come to his daddy’s race track tomorrow. Ren has no idea what to expect, and when he gets there, he is challenged by Chuck to a race in old school buses. They drive, smash up things, and eventually Ren wins.
A kid at school offers Ren a joint but he refuses. The librarian sees it, and chases Ren down the hall. Ren quickly flushes it down the toilet, and is promptly taken to the principal. He tells the truth, that it wasn’t his and he didn’t want it. He also explains that he is a gymnast and never does any kind of drug. Ren is let off with only a warning, but his Uncle is told and he yells at Ren for defying him and nearly getting into trouble.
In anger, Ren drives to an old, deserted garage. He blasts the music, drinks a beer, and rips off his shirt. He dances his anger and stress out, and does gymnastic-flips, too. Ariel walks in after watching everything, and they begin to talk. She takes him to an abandoned train car, which is covered in graffiti, all of which is quotes, lyrics and poems. The local kids call it ‘The Yearbook’. It is there they can express themselves freely, without fear of the tight laws in Bomont. Then, she takes Ren to the railroad track, and stands in the middle as a train is coming, and she won’t get out of its way. As it barrels towards her, Ren yells and pleads for her to get off the track, and as she is about to get hit, he leaps and grabs her, and pushes her out of harm’s way. Ren is angry at her stupidity. She says she has been reckless and lost ever since her brother died.
A few days later, Rusty and Willard, along with Ren and Ariel, drive to the city to the Cowboy Bar, for some live music and country dancing. While Willard refuses to dance, Ren, Ariel and Rusty have a great time. Rusty reminds Willard that he promised that there wouldn’t be any fighting. A cowboy asks Rusty to dance, while the jealous Willard watches and then can’t take it anymore. He cuts in, and then gets in a fight with the cowboy. Rusty, Williard, Ren and Ariel leave, and as they drive home across the bridge where the accident happened, they talk about the tragedy and its after effects.
Another day later, Reverend Moore visits Uncle Wes and tells him he doesn’t like Ren hanging around with his daughter and wants him gone if Wes cannot control him. Uncle Wes tells him that Ren is a stand-up kid, who had to care for and watch his mother die from leukemia after his father abandoned them. Wes tells Moore that Ren is a good kid and strong-willed, but just misunderstood. Reverend Shaw leaves, not persuaded.
Another day later, Ren decides to get a petition going, which he will present to the town council that asks for a repeal of the law against dancing. He wants a prom for his senior class. He thinks its time the law changed. His Uncle Wes and Aunt sign it, and say his mother would have been proud of him.
Willard tells Ren he can’t dance. He never learned how, and is afraid to try. Ren, along with his two nieces, teaches Willard, and soon Willard is an excellent dancer, and happy that he can now dance with his girlfriend, Rusty.
Ariel meets Chuck at the race track and breaks up with him. He doesn’t take it well, and calls her a slut, and he punches her in the face. He leaves her face down in the dirt, and she staggers up, grabs a pipe, and wails on his truck, smashing in the headlights and windows. He is furious, and hits her again bloodying her face.
When Reverend Shaw sees Ariel’s bloody and bruised face after she comes home, he immediately thinks Ren did it, and threatens to kill Ren. Ariel tells him it is just like him to blame Ren for everything, like he blamed everything on Bobby, her dead brother. She tells him she has been so lost since Bobby died. She also tells him she isn’t a virgin, and he slaps her.
Vi and the Reverend talk. Vi tells him that they overreacted with all the fast changes to the laws after the kids died. It was too much, too soon. She reminds him that his obligation is to his daughter first, and the congregation after family.
At the council meeting, Ren speaks and quotes the Bible (which Ariel gave him) and says, there is a time for dance. Reverend Shaw answers that they don’t want the spiritual corruption that dancing brings with it. Ren’s request to overturn the no-dancing law is quickly denied.
When Ren is at work the next day, his boss tells him that he hasn’t noticed that the cotton gin is just over the city line, and isn’t in Bomont, but Basin. So, he says, “Why not have the prom at the cotton gin there in Basin, where it isn’t illegal?”
Reverend Moore is rehearsing his next sermon in the chapel, and Ren comes in, and listens. When the Reverend notices him, he stops and they talk. Ren tells him they are having a dance at the cotton gin in Basin, and he wants to take Ariel as his date. Ren promises to be respectful to Ariel. He tells the Reverend that the dance means a lot to him, but his daughter means more. He won’t go to the dance if he can’t take Ariel. The Reverend has to decide, and Ren tells him, “You gotta do what you gotta do”, thanks him, and leaves.
During the sermon on Sunday, Reverend Shaw tells the congregation that we all need to take responsibility for our own lives. He explains that we have to trust, and can’t hold on forever. He announces that because of the still-standing law banning music and dancing, the senior class is having a dance in Basin, and hopes that they can all support it. Ren and Ariel, and the other students smile and cheer.
The kids all show up at the cotton gin to sweep, clean and decorate for the dance. They raise the lights, and it looks beautiful, and is ready.
At her house, Ariel is getting ready for the dance, and her mom comes in and tells her she looks stunning, and hands her a corsage. Ariel tries to thank her, but she says: “It isn’t from me” (implying that it is from the Reverend).
She hears Ren’s car and comes out before he can ring the bell. He is stunned by how beautiful she looks, and tries to let her in the car. The door is stuck, so she convinces him to lift her and slide her in through the window. Reverend and Vi are watching from the window inside the house. Vi comments that that was a smooth move (by Ariel), and the Reverend smiles.
Ren and Ariel arrive at the dance, and no one is dancing. Ren and Ariel go on the floor and start dancing. Others join in, and soon everyone is dancing. Willard and Rusty arrive, and as they are walking in, Chuck and some of his posse drive up in trucks, and grab Rusty and start to gang up on Willard. Rusty had made him promise, “No fighting!”, but as they hit him and restrain her, she yells, “Beat the hell outta them, Willard!”. At that same time, Ren and Ariel came outside for some air, and see the fight and join in. Ren, Williard, and a few others beat up Chuck and his loser friends, and they drive way. Ren and company return to the dance, where Ren exclaims, “Let’s Dance!” They all dance, confetti falls, and the movie ends as they all dance together.