High Strung goes through the motions of telling a story. Johnnie (Nicholas Galitzine) is a British violinist staying illegally in New York. Ruby (Keenan Kampa) is a new dance student at the Manhattan Conservatory of the Arts, struggling to keep up with her contemporary dance classes. The two meet in the subway, where Johnnie busks. Johnnie has his violin stolen on the night they meet, and feeling responsible, Ruby tries to help him out. She finds him another violin and encourages him to join the Peterson String and Dance contest, where he could win twenty-five thousand dollars and a full scholarship to her school. The two team up with a streetdance crew to take on the best classical violinists and dancers in the city.
So there are a bunch of little narratives in here, but none of them are in any way substantial. Johnnie needs to find a way to stay in America, but it's never really clear why we need to be rooting for him to stay. He is in the country illegally, and it's not like he couldn't be a musician in London. Ruby needs to learn contemporary dance, but the movie never bothers to depict that journey. Even after she starts hanging out with the hip-hop dance crew, she struggles in class. What makes the final performance different is unclear. Her roommate a token subplot involving her dating a terrible guy and risking her scholarship. The movie gives this so little weight that it may as well have not been in there.
The film also manages to make both musicians and dancers seem like the most obnoxious, entitled people around. They just start taking over spaces, subjecting people to their art whether they like it or not. They push tables around in bars, start duels in the middle of the subway, and shirk their duties as servers at a party so they can show off. A turning point in the film involves Johnnie being told that maybe he should consider other people in performing his craft, how his art can't simply be selfish. But that's all this movie offers: artists being selfish about their art.
In the end, like every other dance movie, this story just becomes about winning a contest. In this case, it feels extra ridiculous, because it has to somehow mash up both violin and dance. The movie doesn't even work to get to its contrivances. Apparently anybody can just enter this contest. There's no screening or audition or even guidelines on what can be presented. It exists solely to provide a platform for the movie's otherwise separate concerns. It's all very anticlimactic. The movie teases trouble in the end, but it also turns out to be no trouble at all.
The dancing isn't any better than in any other dance movie, and the direction is worse. The camera often fails to capture the movement, often losing something as it cuts away too much more uninteresting footage of violin playing. The acting is not great, either. Nicholas Galitzine broods and offers nothing else. Keenan Kampa fares a little better, but not by much. In general, this cast is made up of people who seemed to have learned acting exclusively from 90s sitcoms.
High Strung sets new lows for a cinematic genre that doesn't really have that many highs. It doesn't really try hard enough to tell a story. It doesn't do any of the groundwork to earn any of the eventual resolutions and ends up burying the characters under a pile of painful contrivance. And the thing is, it would be okay to have a film that's just all dancing. The story is a burden for this movie, an obligation that must be met to get to the dancing. If they weren't going to take it seriously, it would have been better to skip it altogether.