Save the Last Dance (2001)
Directed by Thomas Carter
Cast: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry Washington, Fredro Starr, Terry Kinney, Bianca Lawson, Vince Green, Garland Whitt, Elisabeth Oas.
2001 112 minutes
Rated: (for violence, sexual content, language and brief drug references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 12, 2001.
A cliched, only half-inspired storyline saved by two standout performances, Thomas Carter's "Save the Last Dance" plays like an urban-set "Center Stage" with the gloss of "Saturday Night Fever." Not nearly as successful or well-choreographed as the former (which largely used real dancers), nor as memorable as the latter, the film nevertheless excels when dealing with the two main character, who are wonderful together and even more interesting apart.
As the movie begins, 17-year-old Sara (Julia Stiles) is traveling by train to live with her estranged musician father (Terry Kinney) in inner-city Chicago. Brought up in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood until her loving mother died in a car accident on her way to attend her audition into Julliard, the radical change in cultures is something Sara manages to adapt to surprisingly quickly. What she has put behind her, however, are lifelong dreams to become a professional ballerina, as she blames herself for her mother's passing.
Sara becomes fast friends with teenage single mother Chenille (Kerry Washington) and her brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), who is anxiously awaiting the results of his application to Georgetown University to become a pediatrician. In Derek, she not only finds someone who she grows attracted to, but someone who challenges and listens to her--and who is determined to not see her give up her dreams of dance.
"Save the Last Dance" is a predictably plotted, but unpredictably well-written, romantic drama that has more on its mind than the usual movie of this sort. The characters are presented as smart, free-thinking individuals with their own belief systems. This comes in handy when developing the two star-crossed protagonists, Sara and Derek, played with aplomb by Julia Stiles (1999's "10 Things I Hate About You") and Sean Patrick Thomas (2000's "Dracula 2000"). Both characters are likable and thoughtful, if still only teenagers, and their whole lives don't revolve around the prom, but their futures. One of the major strengths of their relationship is the way they both love each other, even while realizing their paths will be taking them to separate places the following year.
Also treated especially well is the issue of interracial dating, which seems to be no issue at all for Sara and Derek until it begins to cause trouble with those around them. Derek's snotty ex-girlfriend Nikki (Bianca Lawson) grows not only jealous, but angry that he would choose a white girl over her, while Chenille believes that Derek is one of the few honest, good men around, and he should be interested in someone of his own race. A lesser picture would never even bring this up, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it dealt with in such a direct manner.
The dancing ultimately does not match up to the other story threads. Though there is much of it (whether it be between Sara and Derek, or while in a club), it remains oddly uninvolving, and the way it is choreographed seems choppy. The scenes where Sara performs her ballet is also not very impressive. Whereas it was clear the stars of "Center Stage" were really performing the moves, it is clear that Julia Stiles is a better-trained actress than a dancer. The fact that it is Sara's dream to be a ballerina plays more like an artificial plot device than something her character palpably feels.
While there is a subplot about one of Derek's friends who's headed for a life of meaningless crime, the characters are refreshingly free of the sorts of problems you usually are treated to in stories set in inner-city areas. This fact makes "Save the Last Dance" a contradictory success. While the story is a relatively tired one, it often surprises with the deftness in which the characters and situations are handled.
©2001 by Dustin Putman