Chicago. Any workday of any week. Young people unwind at their favourite dance club where, tonight, they say goodbye to Ren McCormack. Because Ren's father deserted him and his mother, they are being forced to move in with her sister's family in some small town nobody has ever heard of, Bomont, where the spiritual life of the community is carefully monitored by the powerful local minister Reverend Shaw Moore.
Ren quickly finds himself at odds with the repressive, stifling atmosphere in Bomont. The only person seemingly unfazed by Reverend Moore's iron-fisted control is his own daughter Ariel. She runs around with the local bad boy Chuck Cranston, who is sure that he's got the preacher's daughter all figured out.
At school, Ren discovers an unlikely friend in Willard Hewitt, somewhat the country yokel, who is unnerved by Ren's restless energy.
When Ren is stunned to discover that "no dancing of any kind is allowed at any time anywhere within the town limits of Bomont", Ariel's best friends - Rusty, Urleen and Wendy Jo - pull him aside to explain that this law dates back five years to a car accident that claimed the lives of four Bomont teenagers. In the flood of grief and guilt that followed that tragedy, the Rev. Moore managed to convince the Town Council to ban dancing. The girls warn Ren the climate of fear and suspicion that pervades Bomont is all part of small-town living and, in his first months in town, he discovers just how right they are. When Reverend Moore's wife Vi tries to ease ongoing tensions between her daughter and her husband, Shaw refuses to discuss the unpleasantness. Vi gets unexpected support from Ren's mum Ethel, who empathises with Vi's frustration at having to bite her tongue and bide her time.
At the local diner, Ariel's girlfriends bemoan the lack of exciting boys in their lives, and Ariel gets them to join in her fantasy about finding "a guy who amazes me." When Chuck storms in and becomes abusive with Ariel, Ren leaps to her defence. In appreciation Ariel lets Ren in on her private ritual - running through the fields of Bomont, yelling after the trains that will one day, she vows, carry her for away from here. Ren and Ariel find it surprisingly easy to talk but, after Ren walks Ariel home, Shaw demands that she never see Ren again, leading to even further strain within the family. On his way home that same night, Ren is beaten up by a jealous Chuck and his cronies, Travis and Lyle, and the next day, in gym class, when his injuries don't get any sympathy from his coach, Ren's anger and exasperation explode; he vows to "take on this town" and incites a revolution by his classmates: "We're going to throw a dance!" His campaign immediately catches the attention of Reverend Moore and sets the stage for even more conflict to come.
Ren drives Ariel, Rusty and Willard a hundred miles outside of Bomont to a western dance hall where Irene and the Country Kickers keep things moving.
There, Willard confesses to Ren that he can't dance; the news devastates Rusty. So, while the Cowboys give Willard his first lesson, Rusty explains to the Cowgirls just what it is she finds appealing about this guy with two left feet.
When Ariel arrives home, her defiance provokes Show, and he stops just short of slapping his daughter. Shaw refuses to acknowledge to Vi that his treatment of Ariel has grown severe since the death of their son, who, as it turns out, was one of the four teens killed in that fateful car accident. Vi pleads her daughter's case, but Shaw, as usual, walks away from their confrontation.
Meanwhile, Willard and his friends Bickle, Garvin, and Jeter try to prepare Ren for his upcoming confrontation with the Town Council where he'll challenge the local ordinance which buns dancing. When Ren gets discouraged and threatens to abandon the entire campaign, Willard focuses Ren's efforts with the somewhat loopy wisdom that Willard's mother is known for.
Ariel arrives, angry and bruised after c fight wit Chuck Cranston "I think we just broke up," she announces. She leads Ren to her private hideaway, a trestle below the railroad tracks above the river in which her brother Bobby drowned. There, high above the world's problems, they are surprised to discover that their friendship bus turned to love.
At the long-awaited Town Council meeting, Ren makes his case by quoting passages from a Bible which Ariel hod marked for him.
When Ren's motion is defected, he is devastated. Ethel convinces him that Shaw Moore had "fixed" the vote, and she urges him to go speak to the minister. "Otherwise," she warns, "you'll never make peace with this town."
Ren finds Shaw in church, and admits to the Reverend that, perhaps, his campaign for a dance hod less to do with throwing a party and more to do with finding a renewed sense of purpose in the aftermath of his father's departure. When he turns the discussion to Shaw's son Bobby, though, the Reverend loses his temper and throws Ren out.
Only then does Shaw realise how much the pain of Bobby's death has overshadowed his life - and the lives of everyone in Bomont - and, after a struggle with his conscience, he announces to his parishioners that he has hod a change of heart; that, in fact, a dance might be a good idea.
After church, Shaw's new found peace of mind allows him to reaffirm his love for Vi. And so, for the first time in years, the young people of Bomont are able to dress up and "tear up this town"; and when Reverend Moore enters with Vi and all the other adults in town, the evening finally becomes, not only a celebration, but also an ecstatic expression of healing.
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