After a long night of partying, Bobby Moore and four of his friends drive over the bridge and crash into a truck. His father, Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid), the reverend of the church of the small Southern United States town of Bomont, Georgia; persuades the city council to pass several paternalistic laws, including a ban on all unsupervised dancing within the city limits.
Three years later, Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald), a teenager raised in Boston, moves to Bomont to live with his uncle, aunt, and cousins after his mother’s painful death from leukemia. Soon after arriving, Ren makes friends with Willard Hewitt (Miles Teller), a fellow senior at Bomont High, and from him learns about the ban on dancing.
He soon begins to be attracted to Moore’s rebellious daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough), who is dating dirt-track driver Chuck Cranston. After an insult from Chuck, Ren ends up in a game of chicken involving buses, and despite his inability to drive a bus, he wins. Reverend Moore mistrusts Ren, forbidding Ariel to see him ever again. Ren and his classmates want to do away with the law and have a senior prom. After an argument about Ren, Chuck breaks up with and abuses Ariel. Moore initially wants Ren arrested, but Ariel convinces him that Chuck is the real assailant. Moore’s wife, Vi, is supportive of the movement to allow dancing. She explains to Moore he cannot be everyone’s father, and that he is hardly being a good father to Ariel. She also says that dancing and music are not the problem.
Ren goes before the city council and reads several Bible verses, given to him by Ariel, that claim in ancient times people would dance to rejoice, exercise, or celebrate. Ren also teaches Willard how to dance. The city council votes against him. Undaunted, Ren convinces the owner of the cotton mill where he works to let them have a prom there; the mill is just outside the Bomont city limits. Ren goes to see Moore, knowing that Moore still has enough clout to pressure the parents not to let their teenagers come. Ren tells Moore that even though they denied the motion to dismiss the law, they cannot stop the teenagers from having the dance. He then asks him respectfully if he can take Ariel.
On Sunday, Shaw asks his congregation to pray for the high school students putting on the prom. Not long after Ren and Ariel arrive at the prom, Chuck and several of his friends ride up, intent on beating up Ren. However, Ren and Willard fend them off. Ren then flings some confetti into a shredding machine and yells, “Let’s dance!”