Anyone who has ever watched a Disney Channel Original Movie—that is to say anyone who has ever been a tween in the last 24 years—knows what an indelible and long-lasting mark the movies leave on its young viewers. Just this week I texted someone that “like the kids of High School Musical taught us, we’re all in this together.”
Disney has a gift for knowing what those on the cusp of adolescence and, let’s be honest, those well past it, crave. Whether it’s dancing zombies or the singing offspring of classic Disney villains, the characters stealthy impart savvy life lessons amid memorable songs, lovable characters and fun (and sometimes goofy) plots.
At first glance, Spin, which premieres August 13 at 8 PM, seems like your typical Disney Channel movie. Busy 15-year-old Rhea Kumar (Avantika) is juggling her school work, her friends and her responsibilities to Spirit of India, her family’s restaurant run by dad Arvind (Abhay Deol) and her grandmother Asha (Meera Syal). (Yes, in true Disney fashion, of course Rhea’s mother died when she was eight.) Rhea has to figure out how to pursue her newfound love of being a DJ without abandoning her commitment to her family.
This idea of figuring out who you are, what your interests are and how that all fits in with your family dynamic is familiar fodder. What sets Spin apart is that the movie is about an Indian American family and celebrates a wide swath of Indian culture from music to holidays to Bollywood dancing. In fact, Spin marks the Disney Channel’s first film with an Indian American lead.
Rhea and her friends Molly (Anna Cathcart), Watson (Jahbril Cook) and Ginger (Kerri Medders) are preparing for the Festival of Color fundraiser inspired by the Hindu holiday Holi. All members of the after-school coding club, they are a group of very 2021 teens who are masters of social media and very supportive of one another.
Now, of course, there’s a boy. There’s always a boy. New student Max (Michael Bishop), who sports a dreamy British accent and even dreamier blue eyes, is an aspiring DJ. Max introduces Rhea, who can make a great playlist but knows nothing about scratching records or turntables, to the world of DJing. He is in awe and also a bit jealous of Rhea’s natural talent. “You could be great. Like a real artist,” Max tells her. The movie’s climatic moments feature the DJ Beat Masters competition—sure it’s the kind of thing that only exists in movies but we’ll let it slide.
Rhea’s teacher Naomi and her grandmother help Arvind realize that Rhea should be having more fun and less responsibility. In the coding club, all the other students are working on fun projects (a drone that delivers pizza!) but Rhea is creating an app for the restaurant. “Can I be frank with you? I’m worried that Rhea is holding herself back from trying something different. It’s like she sees the restaurant as her whole life,” Naomi tells him. Arvind, still grieving the loss of his wife and constantly spurning his mother-in-law’s repeated efforts to set him up, doesn’t even realize that Rhea may want a life beyond the restaurant. That Spin makes the adult characters fully-realized people and gives equal weight to their problems is unique.
As the charming heart of the movie, Avantika is a delight. Everyone will want a grandmother like Asha. “Boldness is an underappreciated trait in women,” she says. Cathcart—who has co-starred in the Descendants, the To All the Boys trilogy and the beloved series Odd Squad—is this generation’s secret weapon. If she’s in a project, it’s bound to be good. It’s high time she gets to headline her own movie.
Spin weaves Indian music and culture throughout the film simultaneously making Rhea your typical teen and not your typical teen. And here’s what I truly loved about Spin: While the movie touches on all the sweet moments of first crushes—the thrill of holding someone’s hand for the first time!—writers Carley Steiner and Josh Cagan and director Manjari Makijany don’t make Spin about Max and Rhea’s burgeoning romance.
The ending, which drives home the message that Rhea’s sole purpose isn’t about getting the guy, was truly surprising. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s such an important message for young women to get. As Carrie Bradshaw taught us, “The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.” Am I making too much about a movie for kids? I don’t think so. Paradigm shifts like this often start with pop culture. If we want to put a spin on societal expectations, a Disney Channel movie is a great place to start.
Director: Manjari Makijany
Writer: Josh A. Cagan, Carley Steiner
Starring: Avantika, Abhay Deol, Meera Syal, Aryan Simhadri, Michael Bishop, Anna Cathcart, Jahbril Cook, Kerri Medders
Release Date: August 13, 2021 (Disney Channel)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).