Stand(-in) by me

When a story opens with the death of a child’s parent or parents, the psychic landscape to be traversed by the hero is settled: Can the orphan find a home in the world or in their own mind? When multiple stories of the search for home or identity in the wake of parent-loss arrive on the scene, we are attending the birth of a new generation grappling with problems left behind by their parents, dead or living.

Those were my thoughts, anyway, after taking in Save the Last Dance and You Can Count On Me, both stories catalyzed in the first three minutes by the catastrophic loss of parents to automobile accidents. While knocking off one’s parents in the imaginative realm of art may be desirable for liberation from the family fold, real parent loss today through divorce or abandonment is a common experience. Much of the success of the television hit Friends is attributed to attracting the audience of children from divorced families who identify with young people attempting to parent each other. Both of these movies exhibit similar dynamics.

Dancing is the last reason one should see Save the Last Dance. Unlike other movies in which the characters search for their identities through dance, the sole gratification from this film’s merger of hip-hop and ballet comes at the movie’s end, a long two hours’ of stilted hip-jerking to get there.

Following the death of her mother and transfer to the custody of a jazz-playing father capable of the most limited caring, the young white girl is now on her own in an African-American ghetto school. Her sense of self will depend on her ability to develop within an interracial context.

The moviemakers do their audience no favors, though, by having the hero so effortlessly achieve this on the basis of a seamless racial naïveté, as if she didn’t live in America. Nor is the audience made to make much effort of their own in accepting the interracial alliance, since it is with a boy who has been accepted by Georgetown University rather than one of the more plentiful doomed gangbangers. Racism may be overcome here, but don’t even consider loving someone without a college diploma.

Still there are enough respectable social messages here—from teenage black parents accepting responsibility for their children to the consequences of gun violence—that even Orrin Hatch should like this movie. But at its heart is a message that will discomfort Hatch: A young black girl reminds our white hero that it is white people who assume that we all live in the same “world,” while people of color in America know that we don’t. The movie’s big fat close-up smooch scene between the black boy and the white girl remains, sadly, as daring an image as any in the movies this year.

As culturally challenging (and challenged) as Save the Last Dance can be, You Can Count On Me perhaps poses a more despairing paradox. After the death of both parents, the movie jumps forward to the son and daughter’s young adulthood. The daughter now has a young boy, born to a trailer trash father who denies his fatherhood. Her brother comes onto the scene to play surrogate father, obviously and painfully still in search of his own, and thus creates havoc. “My child has plenty of time to learn that the world’s horrible and people suck without experiencing it now,” the mother reprimands her brother. But to no avail.

You can count on me to not be able to count on me. Humans just have a hard time sticking by each other.

There are no cyborgs in either movie, nor even a genetically engineered alien species. These films are reminders that battling such demons may be nothing compared to the unfinished business facing a new generation coming to terms with race and the dissolution of family, and with the never-finished business of being at peace with one another.