These kids attend Albuquerque's East High School -- which looks suspiciously like Grease's Rydell High, even if there's not a greaser (or even a smoker) in the bunch. Instead, there's just a lot of happy, clean cut, all-American, drug-free, college-bound youngsters, who sing and dance at the drop of a hat or the bounce of a basketball. Indeed, HSM3 not only throws the audience right into the final 16 minutes of the final senior basketball game -- but the screen immediately bursts into an explosive song and dance number about having just 16 minutes to play in the final senior basketball game, a portent of things to come both musically and plot-wise.
Like its predecessors, HSM3 is directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega, the dancemeister of such iconic flicks as St. Elmo's Fire, Dirty Dancing, and Xanadu. But while each of those films either has an edgy irony or fairly oozes sexuality, HSM3 is squeaky clean. It's as if he's created a special musical episode of Saved by the Bell starring a cast of Barbie and Ken dolls.
And while HSM3's dancing is an amalgam of every style from Busby Berkeley to what one cast member dubs, "a Fosse-Yoga thing" (a term obviously meant for the parents of the target audience), there's no rap and no Hip Hop. Okay, there is The Boys Are Back, featuring Troy and Chad in a 'guys only' number set in a junk yard that momentarily echoes Stomp, but it seems downright anachronistic in its pseudo-edginess.
Ultimately, for the kids at East Side High, senior year comes down to playing the last game, choosing the right college (Stamford, Yale, Berkeley, Juilliard, plus a local college are among the options), going to the senior prom -- and, most importantly starring in their last high school musical. I wonder what they'll do for an encore.
The film, which deals with the healing power of family and forgiveness, features Scott Thomas as the stoically silent Juliette, whom the viewer first encounters when she meets her younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) for the first time in 15 years. Juliette is a desiccated shell of a woman, gray-faced and tight lipped, and little by little, the reasons for her fierce lack of emotion are revealed. She's been in prison for the last 15 years charged with a heinous crime, yet during her trial she never spoke in her own defense and now she rarely speaks at all. Despite that silence Lea desperately wants to connect, to understand, and to love her sister.
From the bones of this plot, one might expect a sort of melodramatic "'women in prison" film from the 1930s, but Claudel opts for an almost neo-realistic approach. Ever so slowly, Juliette's reserve is penetrated both by those who care about her and those who don't. And as others warm to her, the hard shell begins to crack and a real woman emerges, filled with pain and guilt and the need to love and finally to explain.
The film has the power of all good art, as it makes you think about not just the role of family, but what constitutes a family. (Lea has two adopted Asian daughters.) And it even asks much bigger questions -- such as what is love and what is murder -- as slowly and quite believably, Juliette rebuilds a life for herself.