Walking into a screening of "Something New" with some knowledge of its central conflict, there was a certain skepticism on my part as to how it would be handled believably in the twenty-first century. Fifty years ago, the concept of a man and woman of different races romantically involved and facing a certain amount of prejudice from society might have been a hot-button envelope pusher, and was. Today, it really does not seem like such a big deal, especially between mature, well-educated adults living in Los Angeles. One wrong step, and the film would be in danger of being one-dimensional, over-the-top, or even racist. Walking out of the screening 100 minutes later, I was left surprised and invigorated by the level of thoughtfulness first-time director Sanaa Hamri and screenwriter Kriss Turner brought to the story.
Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) is an upper-level accountant who, for all of her rising success in the business field, is decidedly uptight and either unlucky in love or too picky about the kind of black man she wants to find it. A blind date she is set up on by coworker Leah (Katharine Towne) ends rockily after discovering that the handsome Brian Kelly (Simon Baker) is white. Kenya has never dated outside of her race and isn't sure she wants to take on the extra challenges a romance with Brian might bring to dealing with her family and friends. When Kenya needs a landscaper to help fix up her nice new home's weed-infested backyard, by chance Brian comes to her rescue. What starts as a business relationship leads to something much more, leaving Kenya feeling alive and in love for possibly the first time in her life. Brian claims he was raised to see beyond the color of someone's skin, but Kenya is unsure she can do the same, especially after being placed in situations with him that she knows would be so much easier and less uncomfortable if he was black.
In many ways, "Something New" is a message movie about the importance of not judging a book by its cover, but by what is in between the pages, and Hamri and Turner have managed to impart this notion with very little preachiness and a whole lot of conviction and intelligence. For one, the complications that arise for Kenya and Brian are natural and feel real, with Brian unable to see eye to eye with Kenya's work frustrations when clients second guess her work because of her race, but empathetic nonetheless with what she is going through. In another scene, a harmless trip to a comedy club where the black female comic jokes about not being able to date a white man leaves Kenya feeling self-conscious. Meanwhile, Kenya's family of overachievers, especially mother Joyce (Alfre Woodard) and younger brother Nelson (Donald Faison), have a difficult time coming to grips with the idea that Kenya might think Brian is "the one" for her. Kenya's journey toward independence and freedom as she learns to trust her own feelings and choose what makes her happiest is emotionally satisfying and rings exceedingly true.
Also helping the picture's cause is the care with which the supporting characters have been conceived. Kenya's friends (Wendy Raquel Robinson, Golden Brooks, Taraji P. Henson), for example, are at first a little surprised by her burgeoning romance with Brian, but instead of judge her negatively, they remain open-minded and supportive. With a little time to process Kenya's decisions and recognize the gift she has found with Brian, who is gentlemanly, fun-loving, and respectful, it is assured that Joyce and Nelson will eventually come around too. The people populating Kenya's life are never viewed as prejudiced of her romance with Brian, the concerns they do have stemming more from their, and much of society's, expectations for who someone should love not being neatly met.
Sanaa Lathan (2004's "Alien vs. Predator
") is poised and poignant as Kenya, bringing a strength and grounded quality to her role that proves irresistible. Her arc as she navigates through choices benefiting herself, even if they mean a little extra work in building an equal and healthy relationship, is the biggest in the film, and ultimately the most gratifying to watch take form. As hunk-with-a-heart-of-gold Brian, Simon Baker (2005's "Land of the Dead
") injects levels of charm, charisma, and even underlying flaws to a part that could have otherwise been just the thankless love-interest eye candy. Lathan and Baker make for a cute couple the viewer wants to see happy, supported by an ensemble cast that doesn't have a weak link in it.
The film's one plot development that threatens feeling strained at the onset, with Kenya going out with a more like-minded black businessman, Mark (Blair Underwood), after having a fight with Brian, is saved through a touching and empowering scene between the two where Kenya comes to the conclusion that they aren't right for each other. And Mark, who starts off appearing a little smarmy, is wisely not written so much as a bad guy, but as a man whose proud ego simply clangs with what Kenya wants and needs in her life. He also proves to be the crucial catalyst that helps to snap into focus the things Kenya discovers to be most important.
A romantic comedy that doesn't talk down to its audience or make the mistake of introducing forced conflicts and misunderstandings for just the sake of having them, "Something New" is a lovely early-year delight. At first glance, the film follows the tried and true patterns of the genre, and there is never any question how things will turn out in the end. What enriches the experience beyond being a mere featherweight confection is the depth and insight brought to the story, and the unbiased attitude director Sanaa Hamri takes in working out Kenya's dilemma. As with the self-discovery Kenya goes through in seeing the value of who Brian is as a person, "Something New" ends up making an impact impossible to anticipate based on first impressions.