“College has changed”, a narrator solemnly intones during an animated sequence at the start of Rock Steady Row … and not for the better, the viewer quickly surmises.
Exorbitant tuition rates remain perfectly intact, the dean’s offices are still located in the most palatial of buildings, and douchey members of headbutting fraternities still roam the campus grounds in search of fresh meat. Life of the average college student is hard in Trevor Stevens’ directorial debut, but here at Rock Steady U the situation is taken to post-apocalyptic extremes and the stress of midterms would be a welcome reprieve from the pressures of navigating day-to-day survival.
The titular dormitory row is so impoverished and rundown it resembles a cross between a shanty and a ghost town. It’s a male-dominated microcosm where sororities have been forced into hiding; a dystopia in which the custodial staff is equally comfortable handling garbage bags as it is disposing of body bags. By way of a welcome, freshmen find themselves swindled out of their bikes by warring fraternities desperate to make a buck. He who controls the bike racket holds the most clout on campus (and rest assured the dean [Larry Miller] takes his cut of the profit).
So too the fate of the film’s protagonist seems sealed – tricked out of his ride by Andrew Palmer (Logan Huffman), sociopathic ruler of Kapa Brutus Omega – were it not for the fact that The Freshman (Heston Horwin) is something of a modern-day renegade who won’t just put up with the law of the land. Eager to retrieve his wheels and forced to take matters into his own hands he becomes a pawn in the power struggle between the Kapa’s and their rivals, High Society, before devising a plot that hustles both sides for his own financial gain.
From the get-go, viewers will be taken aback by how polished a production Rock Steady Row is. In fact, the scene described above, in which The Freshman plays both sides, is a showcase of the film’s spunk and visual ingenuity. Making metaphoric use of a chessboard and its opposing color scheme, the sequence unfolds as a wonderful mix of efficient cuts and imaginative transitions.
The range of locations is relatively limited and struggles, in and of itself, to believably convey the scale of a college campus but smart and considerable attention to sound design broadens the world beyond what is normally expected of an indie, often making it seem as though Rock Steady Row is an adaptation of a graphic novel you can’t wait to get your hands on. It’s the type of film that’s never afraid to try its hand at a different subgenre even if its initial appropriation of western tropes in a college setting recalls Community classic “A Fistful of Paintballs” (with a strand of Turbo Kid coursing through its veins).
The film’s embrace of multiple genres also leads to some tonal inconsistencies along the way. Attempts at humor never really take off or gel with increasingly topical themes and a rising body count, but the fact that Rock Steady Row threads its most ambitious ground as it sets up its final brawl is commendable.
Whereas The Freshman is, for the most part, low on charm and driven by materialism instead of righteousness, a change is triggered when his roommate Piper (Diamond White) calls him out on his selfish BS and makes him aware of his own culpability in sustaining a vicious circle of campus sexism. Refreshingly free from romantic motivations his eventual rescue mission also frees him from his own shortsightedness. If The Freshman becomes a better man, it’s entirely thanks to the women who cross his path.
Rock Steady Row is a fast-paced blast of creativity that thrills as it exposes the oppression that is endemic to the college system as a whole and challenges the objectification that fraternities can foster.
Performances are fine across the board, but Logan Huffman deserves special credit for turning Kapa leader Andrew Palmer into a memorable antagonist who finds his own shade of egomaniacal sleaze out of seemingly channeling Heath Ledger's Joker and Skeet Ulrich's Billy Loomis.