The very American subject of being caught between two racial worlds, as tackled in such vintage pics as “Pinky,” “Imitation of Life” and “The Searchers, ” would seem even more difficult to treat in the age of integration and political correctness. But New Yorker Alison Swan, a black, Bermuda-born debuting helmer, breathes fresh life into the genre. While well-directed, crisply lensed pic is a bit schematic in its characterizations, its fluid rhythms, fine comic timing and full-blooded lead character make it universal in its appeal and, for most of its length, a joy to watch. With a bigger budget, Swan could prove a formidable talent, but even this low-budget yarn could find a limited niche with proper handling.
Raised privileged in suburban Westchester County, just outside New York City, Nia (Karyn Parsons) lives the life of a white yuppie; she’s the child of divorced ’60s-era activist parents, a black mom and white lawyer dad. A successful copy writer at an ad agency, Nia suffers a bout of conscience when called upon to push a new beer on young ghetto blacks, and she quits her job. She has two goals: to write a book and to find her racial identity.
Her girlfriends and her male love interests seem almost too equally divided between white and black, but her vacillation between racial identities manifests itself in funny, intentionally over-the-top fantasy sequences (Southern victim of segregation, streetwise ghetto girl, etc.) as she labors over the keyboard trying to figure out how to approach her book. (She also remembers a somewhat cliched incident at the zoo as a child, when she stared at a white polar bear swimming in a pool — a recurring sequence that could easily be excised from pic.)
Through the help of a neighbor — a potential love interest — she finds her own voice (a bit too literally) and emerges from her writer’s block as a fully synthesized mixed-race individual.
Swan, who has made several docuss on the black experience, has a gift for capturing the sights and sounds of New York. The Nia that she and actress Parsons have created is something of a Mary Richards as a “cafe au lait” (a too-oft-recurring metaphor in pic), an attractive, energetic young woman in the big city moving, humorously, from one personal drama to another.
Swan has Nia finding her reflection through men, like black Afrocentric prof Lewis (Isaiah Washington), white ad-agency partner Matt (Eric Thal) and white musician neighbor Joe (Diego Serrano), rather than reducing her to a picture-perfect p.c. stereotype of a liberated woman. Helmer even satirizes tunnelvision of dogmatics: Well-meaning Nia takes Lewis to an African-American restaurant, where she orders starch-and-cholesterol-laden soul food for the first time in her life, while horrified Lewis goes with pure veggie fare. Her black (Rosalyn Coleman) and white (Heidi Schanz) girlfriends offer comic relief to Nia’s confusion. But final sequence of Nia’s revelation is far too smug and out of character with tone of film.Parsons is a stunning, talented thesp, and gifted Serrano could be the next movie hunk. Fine soundtrack is eclectic, moving among blues and soul numbers. Cynthia Scheider’s precise editing and Christopher Norr’s lensing elevate project to professional level.