Overlooked actress brings Something New

Consider this a paean to Sanaa Lathan, one of my major pleasures from minor movies over the past few years. I first noticed Lathan in a small role in the ensemble comedy The Best Man and later fell for her as the co-star of Love & Basketball (opposite Omar Epps) and Brown Sugar (opposite Taye Diggs). Lathan drew some good notices for these movies, but they didn't make her a star. Part of this was because these were modest movies aimed at an audience -- middle- to upper-middle-class African Americans -- that doesn't get much attention in the culture. But another reason is that Lathan's performances were so modest.

For the kinds of mass-release Hollywood comedies Lathan has appeared in, her performances are remarkably restrained and naturalistic, which matches a physical beauty that's radiant yet somehow humble. She seems so normal, so likable, so perfect for her Love & Basketball and Brown Sugar roles of longtime best friend turned belated love interest. Lathan deserves to be a star, and she could move a little bit closer with Something New, which gives her a clear-cut starring role for the first time.

A script-flip on the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner conceit, Something New is a gentle comedy about the difficulties of interracial romance, far less strident and corny than its predecessor. Where Guess Who's Coming to Dinner focused on the parents of a young white woman who brought home a black fiancé, essentially guiding a hesitant white audience to acceptance of the concept, Something New privileges the concerns of its black characters, and thus its African-American audience.

But another difference is that Something New isn't just about the parents: Lathan's Kenya is a young woman whose success on the job (she's an accountant competing for partner at a Los Angeles firm) isn't matched by her stalled love life. She commiserates with a group of friends who are also highly educated, highly successful African-American women -- a banker, a judge, a pediatrician -- about how their demographic group is the least likely to get married. Maybe because their standards are too demanding.

Kenya's conception of what she wants gets thrown for a loop when a co-worker sets her up on a blind date with Brian, a landscape architect (Simon Baker) who just happens to be white. Kenya has never considered dating a white man and has as many issues to work though as her friends and family. (Her young brother teases her with a series of euphemisms for dating a white guy: "skiing the slopes," "sleeping with the enemy," "moving to the O.C.") Not understanding her hesitancy to commit to a relationship clearly full of spark, Brian thinks he's color-blind, but as Kenya -- and the movie -- makes plain, Brian has racial issues he doesn't even recognize.

The relationship arc of this modern-day "women's picture" is familiar, but the getting there is surprisingly satisfying. It's helped along by a couple of qualities that differentiate Something New from Lathan's previous films. First-time director Sanaa Hamri and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut lend the movie a tone and look (check the Crenshaw street scenes and almost documentary visit to a black society party) far removed from the sitcom-y feel most low-profile Hollywood comedies have. And though Something New addresses an underrepresented audience, it doesn't pander to it. This is unusual and fresh, just like the actress who carries the film.

Something New

Opens Friday, February 3rd

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