There is real logic and there is movie logic. Audiences are usually very forgiving of lapses in movie logic — we recognize that people always get perfect parking spaces and have correct change and live in fabulous apartments that their characters could never afford because we recognize that these elements are there to make the story movie smoothly and because they make it more fun to watch. In the spirit of movies like “Flashdance” and “Grease,” this movie requires suspension of disbelief that is close to complete abandonment of any sense of reality. This is the kind of movie in which characters who live in the poorest circumstances seem to have all the money they need to buy fake IDs or expensive theater tickets. Students who get good grades never seem to do any homework or have any books in their backpacks. A teenager with a baby never has a problem with child care. Still, no one goes to this movie to gain great insights about the human condition. It is nowhere near “Grease” or “Flashdance” in style, soundtrack, or dance (and the use of a dance double in the ballet sequences is obvious), but it may appeal to teens who see it as one big music video.
Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) is a ballet dancer who is nervous about her big audition for Julliard. Her mother promises to be there, but she is killed in a car crash on the way to the theater. Sara leaves her home in the suburbs to live with her musician father (Terry Kinney) in a tiny apartment in Chicago’s inner city. Memories of her old life are so painful that she wants to leave everything behind.
Her new high school has metal detectors at the entrance, and almost all of the students are black. She stands in the cafeteria, holding her tray, not knowing where to sit. Chenille (Kerry Washington) welcomes Sara to her table. Chenille’s brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) is a smart kid torn between his loyalty to his old friends who are increasingly involved in dangerous activities, and his ambitions to go to college and medical school. Chenille brings Sara to a dance club (after a quick style makeover) and after some verbal sparring, Derek dances with Sara, teaching her a little about hip hop. He gives her a few more lessons. They become friends, then they become romantically involved. He finds out about her passion for ballet, and urges her to apply to Julliard again. Various complications ensue, especially when Chenille becomes angry and tells Sara that white girls should not become involved with “one of the few decent men we got left after jail, drugs, and drive-by.” Sara, Chenille, and Derek have to confront their fears and think carefully about loyalty and trust. Ultimately, what Sara has learned from Derek in dance and in life, helps her to follow her dream.
This is a formulaic coming of age/teen romance with an MTV spin (MTV co-produced the movie). While the script is below average, even by the low standards of this genre, its performers are attractive and sincere (Kerry Washington is particularly appealing) and most teens are still so new to this category of film that it may not seem clichéd to them.
Parents should know that the characters use strong language and the soundtrack lyrics have even stronger language, including the n-word. Chenille has an out of wedlock child (and a difficult relationship with the child’s father). Derek has to decide whether his loyalty to an old friend (and his sense of guilt at the friend’s having taken the rap for them both) means that he must go along with him when he plans to shoot someone. Characters object to the interracial romance, mostly because they are jealous. The characters buy fake IDs so they can go to a club that serves liquor, and they drink and smoke.
Families who see this movie should talk about the choices Sara and Derek must face. Sara blames herself for her mother’s death. How does she overcome that feeling and allow herself to take the risk of auditioning again? How do Derek and Sara get into trouble by not being honest with each other about what is bothering them? How do they sort through their loyalties, Derek to his friend Malakai (Fredro Starr) and Sara to Chenille? Malakai tells Derek, “You act like you don’t know who you are anymore.” How do Sara and Derek decide who they are? Where do they find their support?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Footloose” and “Fame,” both with some mature material.