Save the Last Dance
2001, PG-13, 113 min. Directed by Thomas Carter. Starring Kerry Washington, Bianca Lawson, Fredro Starr, Terry Kinney, Sean Patrick Thomas, Julia Stiles.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 12, 2001
A surprisingly ambitious teen film, Save the Last Dance uses the marriage of hip-hop and ballet as the backdrop for its story of first love and second chances. The film begins with a series of flashbacks that give us a speedy introduction: Aspiring prima donna ballerina and suburban white girl Sara (Stiles) loses her mother in a car accident at the same time she is off trying out for admission to Juilliard. Sara blames herself (her mother was racing to make it to the audition) and renounces ballet forever. She moves in with her estranged father, who lives in inner-city Chicago, and is thrust into the uneasy position of being white in an all-black high school. A classmate, Derek (the impressive Patrick Thomas), himself well schooled in hip-hop dance, takes a liking to her and teaches the straight-laced Sara how to bump and grind like the best of them, while helping her rediscover her love for ballet. Much of the humor in Save the Last Dance comes from the usual fish-out-of-water jokes (watch the hapless Sara try to fit into the ghetto!), which is a pretty one-note kind of comedy. But while the jokes are mostly uninspired, the dancing is anything but. Helmed by director (and central Texas native) Thomas Carter (Swing Kids) and choreographer Fatima, the dance sequences simply thrill. Bodies tend to respond in Pavlovian fashion, even to movies: Romantic scenes set mouths watering, erotic scenes stimulate another region altogether. Here, any hint of dancing gets feet itching to tap, hips aching to shake. When Sara's classmates hit the downtown club Steps, they make it look so sexy, so sweaty, it's all you can do to bolt yourself to the seat and not toward the door and the nearest dance floor. Save the Last Dance deserves major points for maturely handling challenging material like teen interracial romance, especially when compared to the embarrassingly tame proceedings in another new release, Finding Forrester (which also features a young black man and white woman). Whereas that film plays it timid, allowing only for mildly suggestive language and coy glances -- not even a kiss! -- Save the Last Dance is honest about what high school kids are really like … which is horny. Horny and confused. Carter's film also readily acknowledges that a relationship between a black kid and a white kid in the Chicago 'hood is going to have some conflict. And not just easily surmountable, stereotypical white prejudices, but gritty, unwieldy issues like preservation of the black community. (Derek's sister, the sassy, sympathetic Chenille, rages at Sara for co-opting one of the black community's rising stars, arguing basically that a black woman deserves Derek, not a white one.) Ultimately, Save the Last Dance is hampered by an inability to really follow through on these tough issues (and by a largely lackluster performance by Stiles, who always seems to play it smart, but with little heart to speak of). But to the film's credit, it tries, and while it never really sings, it does deliver the dance.