Flipped a welcome offering from Rob Reiner, Mao’s Last Dancer has right moves

by Mark Burger

Director Rob Reiner’s nostalgic romantic comedy Flipped, an adaptation of the Wendelin Van Draanen novel, finds the filmmaker in somewhat familiar territory. One of Reiner’s biggest early hits was When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Flipped might be described as “When Bryce Met Juli.”

From the day his family moved into the house across the street in the mid-1950s, Bryce Loski (Ryan Ketzner as a boy, Callan McAuliffe as a teen) caught the eye of Juli Baker (Morgan Lily as a girl, Madeline Carroll as a teen). Over the next few years, Bryce tries to avoid Juli’s attentions, but eventually he’ll come around.

The film “flips” back and forth, giving both Bryce’s and Juli’s points of view throughout the story, punctuated (predictably) by golden oldies on the soundtrack and depicted in breezy, sun-dappled terms. Yet there’s a comfort to these proceedings, and it’s not difficult to accept the expected trappings and simply enjoy this tale of puppy love.

There are a few lapses and loose ends within the film’s episodic structure, but the performances always keep the momentum on track. As he showed in The Sure Thing (1985), particularly Stand by Me (1986) and even the lamentable North (1994), Reiner has a knack for coaxing credible performances from young actors. In McAuliffe and especially Carroll, he has done so again. Both hold their own admirably, and do an exceptional job of holding the film together. That’s not to downplay other aspects, but the film is much dependent on them. As the younger Bryce and Juli, Ketzner and Lily are also very appealing.

There’s also nice work from the grown-up actors, too: Anthony Edwards (who enjoyed one of his first big screen roles in The Sure Thing) and Rebecca De Mornay as Bryce’s parents, Aidan Quinn and Penelope Ann Miller as Juli’s parents, and John Mahoney as Bryce’s wise old grandpa. How Bryce and Juli relate to their parents is almost as important as how they relate to each other.

In an era of special-effects blow-outs and big-budget franchises, a “people picture” like this almost seems outdated. Flipped is a “nice” film, as well as a solid effort from Reiner (who also produced and co-wrote the screenplay. It’s affectionate, warm, a little sugary at times but also charming at others, and a welcome sleeper all the way.

Mao’s Last Dancer (opening Friday) is the screen adaptation of the autobiography of Li Cunxin, an acclaimed ballet dancer from China who was thrust into the international spotlight in the early 1980s, both because of his extraordinary talents and his decision to remain in the United States — much to the chagrin of his government.

The story shifts back and forth through time, dramatizing Li’s initial recruitment as a dancer by the government when his was a young boy (Wen Bin Huang), then the rigorous training he endured as a teenager (Chengwu Guo), during which he realized that artistic expression was regulated, and regimented, by the government. Li dances not for himself, but for the “Revolution.”

It is during a cultural exchange that Li is permitted to leave Beijing and perform as a guest artist with the Houston Ballet. This is Li’s first exposure to Western civilization, and the expected culture clash proves a bit of a challenge for him. It’s in his relationship with a young American dancer (Amanda Schull), however, that he finds himself torn. His decision to remain in the United States quickly escalates into an international incident.

Mao’s Last Dancer is directed by Bruce Beresford, the Australianborn filmmaker who throughout his career has evinced an interest in and a curiosity about various cultures: Tender Mercies (1983), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Black Robe (1991), etc. It is therefore easy to see what drew him to this film, which dramatizes not only Li’s experiences in his native China but also his introduction and acclimation to Western culture.

In its aspirations to be both a crowdpleaser and a tear-jerker, the film pushes a lot of the right buttons (some a little more stridently than others), but it’s never insincere.

The film pivots on the performance of Chi Cao, an actual ballet dancer who makes his acting debut as Li. Here, the filmmakers have truly lucked out. Not only is Cao an extraordinary dancer, but he’s got screen presence. The camera loves him, whether he’s doing a pirouette onstage or merely standing still. Without his persuasive performance (and presence), Mao’s Last Dancer would certainly not be as effective as it is.