I don't know about anyone else, but Center Stage was kind of an event for me. I know every beat of the story - roughly half a dozen bright-eyed young things dance, laugh, cry, and learn together as they compete for a few coveted spots during their year at the American Ballet Academy - by heart. A while ago, a friend of mine said "I miss Cooper," and even though she was talking about Bert Cooper of Mad Men, my first thought was "COOPER NIELSON! From Center Stage!" I also learned the choreography for the final dance number, set to Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat," and could still do it if asked. So, yes, Center Stage is a pretty substantial part of my life.
For those of you who don't know, the main protagonist of this movie is blonde, beautiful, and awkward Jody Sawyer. On paper, Jody is a reasonably strong woman. She isn't a perfect dancer, but what she lacks in technique she makes up for in hard work and (alleged) charisma. She successfully and charmingly courts two handsome and skilled ballet dancers, and after an initial tantrum takes Cooper Nielson's romantic brush-off in stride. But in practice, Jody Sawyer only distinguishes herself as a professional drip. It's especially hard to sympathize with her when she's next to someone as magnetic, talented, and generally badass as Ms. Eva Rodriguez.
I normally hate the role of the sassy black-or-Latina friend, but I cannot argue with Zoe Saldana's performance. From her first frame, she seizes your attention and is positively fizzling with energy and real personality. It's almost unfair how successfully she eclipses her so-called lead.
Despite the charisma disparity, the female friendships in this movie are unusually supportive and positive for a teen movie. While there is the requisite bitch (who went to a special bitch academy, amirite Eva??), Jodie continues to reach out to her. Even though all of the students are explicitly competing with each other, we rarely see the women belittle or envy each other. There's much less "I'm not here to make friends!" than you'd expect, really.
There are, of course, several elements about this film that I can't defend. Mandy Moore's double appearance on the soundtrack, for instance. The idea of Peter Gallagher ever being a ballet dancer. Susan May Pratt's wildly uneven performance as Maureen - she stars in probably the worst scene of the entire movie, when her pre-med dish of a boyfriend finally confronts her on her bulimia.
|I'd listen to him if I were you, Maureen.|
And there's the incredible facility of the ending, where everyone gets the outcome they want, even "headcases and cripples." But my biggest problem is with Jody's Big Speech, which she gives to her head instructors before they can tell her whether she's been accepted into the American Ballet Company or not. See here. Skip to the end: Jody tells them that she'd rather not hear whether she's been accepted, because if she does go to ABC she'll spend her best dancing years waving a rose back and forth in a chorus, and she's better than that. (I seriously just typed that from memory. I didn't even watch that clip that I linked to just now.) Instead, she's going to be the principal at Cooper Nielson's new studio. She then drops the mic and walks out.
So, great for Jody. But we just saw Eva get accepted to ABC, and we were supposed to be happy for her. Are we to assume that she'll escape the rose-waving fate that Jody just described, or not? Or does Jody just believe that ABC wouldn't recognize and reward her own unique talents? Is Cooper Nielson really the right person to pin her hopes on, in that case? He wasn't even the one who taught her how to dance through her emotions! That was Charlie!
I'm getting caught up in something that could not matter less. I am very aware. At the risk of losing everyone's respect, I have to admit that I whole-heartedly love Center Stage. I saw it in theatres when I was 12 and thought all of the protagonists were beautiful and lovable. I identified with Jody Sawyer struggling with people telling her she had the wrong body type. I wanted Eva Rodriguez to find a mentor who believed in her. I wanted Maureen to eat something without immediately throwing it up. In short, I responded to it in the exact way the movie wanted me to, because I was 12 and had no standards.
I'm not a typically nostalgic person. Movies geared to trigger an affectionate wistfulness for my childhood or adolescence rarely work - nostalgia just seems pointless to me. (Sorry, Toy Story 3.) Still, my continued affection for Center Stage, and some other similarly mediocre movies, must be tied to some sort of nostalgia. I saw them at exactly the right time, and was exactly vulnerable enough for them to work their otherwise limited magic. I cannot and will not apologize for that. And to all the haters, I have this to say: