I don’t back down from my critical opinion of ”Save the Last Dance.” I think it’s a wan, formulaic, and sloppily made teen movie in the shadow of ”Footloose” and ”Dirty Dancing,” one that falsely resolves serious issues of interracial romance in record time. Others, though, obviously think otherwise: The movie has been No. 1 at the box office for two weeks now, and a few of those who have enjoyed watching Julia Stiles get her groove on have written to chastise me for being so cynical.
”Just because Ms. Schwarzbaum is disillusioned doesn’t mean everyone has to be. Let young people have their dreams and believe in love,” writes Mitchell Uscher. Hey, hey, I’m not heartless. I’m as delighted as the next teen that Sara (Stiles), the smart white ballet student, and Derek (Thomas), the smart black hip hop student, do their mutual thing. But ”Last Dance” throws away a chance to be brave — and vital — when it quickly sets aside the objections of Derek’s sister, Chenille (Kerry Washington), who resents that good African American women are losing a pool of good, role model worthy black men to white women because of lovebirds like Sara and Derek.
For a brief moment, between scenes of mediocre dancing, director Thomas Carter’s Romeo and Juliet love story touches on something important, thoughtful, and real in the lives of black and white sweethearts; a finger is placed on a perpetually burning topic in the African American community. And then — all is rosy again: Chenille makes a very special exception for Sara, and the peach colored chick who plaits her hair into droopy cornrows is welcomed into the ‘hood — simple as that. (A dangerous friend of Derek’s who also objects to the match is conveniently neutralized by a bullet.)
I thought of this prettified romantic drama last week at the Sundance Film Festival when I saw ”Chain Camera,” about kids at a multiracial Los Angeles high school, that’s as casually, compellingly real and exciting a documentary as ”Save the Last Dance” is false. The premise is irresistible: Ten kids were given video cameras and told to document their lives any way they wished, for a week. Then the camera was passed on to another 10, and another, and so on.
From the tape collected, director Kirby Dick edited the autobiographical movies of 16 teenagers. And the collected power of these unflinching, unsugared, sometimes funny, sometimes awful, always brave and compelling self portraits ought to give Hollywood moviemakers another think about what teens — gay, straight, losers, brains, vamps, toughs, some first generation Americans, some raised by single parents — are really like, and what’s on their minds.
They’ve got big minds, these young filmmakers. They’ve got that eerie, quintessentially American ease with being in front of the lens, and of talking openly into a microphone about what troubles them, interests them, bugs them. Heck, they’re obsessed with talking — about sex, race, dreams, fears. Aren’t we all? The students at John Marshall High School in ”Chain Camera” know damn well that real life doesn’t wrap things up neat and PG-13; they know life’s more interesting, and more challenging than that. And what they want to see are other teens like them, going through the same s—.
While Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas cautiously bump perfectly lit booties, the stars of ”Chain Camera” really rock. Where are the teen dramas that rock with them?