In cinema, ballet has long served as fodder for settings of horror and brutality. It makes sense: Careers are short, and there is always another dancer waiting in the wings with better feet, a higher jump and — that undeniable thing — youth. But dance is also a way to show emotions and the inner mind without words; a body can lose control. It can appear to be human and transform into something else: eerie, tormented, exaggerated. It can house horror.
“The Red Shoes” (1948) is an opulent look at a young ballerina who rises to the top and dances herself to death. More recent is “Black Swan” (2010), a psychological drama in which another young dancer loses her mind during a company’s production of “Swan Lake.” Stereotypes? Sure. Problematic? Yes. But in the case of supernatural horror, realism isn’t the point.
The horror in “Suspiria,” both the 1977 and 2018 versions, involves witches haunting dance academies; the dancers in Gaspard Noé’s “Climax” are deranged and on drugs. I like parts of all these movies. They’re grown up. So is the excellent “Billy Elliot” (2000), and that’s about an 11-year old boy. It shows dance as a form of catharsis: Billy, growing up during the grim 1984 coal miner’s strike in northern England, had a reason to dance.
But “Tiny Pretty Things” is cheap: It’s like an 11-year old trying to act — and dress — like a grown-up. It’s a dirtier version of “Center Stage” (2000), a popular film that veered toward the corny and that wasn’t well served by its broad characterizations and stereotypes. And add to that some of the trauma and torment associated with “Flesh and Bone,” a 2015 Starz mini-series, and the unending scandal of “Gossip Girl.”
It should come as little surprise that in “Tiny Pretty Things,” rest and rehab aren’t how a dancer overcomes an injury: It’s drugs. One student, Bette, dancing with fractured metatarsal, needs more Vicodin. She tells her mother, “I can limp around on Advil, or you can help me achieve liftoff.”
It gets worse. Much of the hammy dialogue is delivered with a bizarre, manic sense of importance. There are plenty of bulging eyes.