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With: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Terry Kinney, Fredro Starr, Bianca Lawson, Kerry Washington, Vince Green, Garland Whitt, Elisabeth Oas
Written by: Duane Adler, Cheryl Edwards
Directed by: Thomas Carter
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and implied sexual content
Running Time: 112
Date: 01/09/2001

Save the Last Dance (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Beat of Its Own Drummer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's important to remember, with more dumb Freddie Prinze Jr. movies on the way, that teen movies are rarely about anything. When one comes along like Save the Last Dance, which is not exactly spectacular but tries hard and has its heart in the right place, we might not even notice.

Julia Stiles stars as Sara, a 17 year-old ballerina who moves to Chicago's south side to live with her dad (Terry Kinney, also in The House of Mirth) after her mother dies. She also changes to a new school, a tough all-black school. To her credit, Sara doesn't flinch and soon makes friends with Chenille (Kerry Washington) and her brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas). They take her to a club called Steps and she realizes that her ballet training is no good when it comes to hip-hop dancing. Derek offers to teach her after school.

To tell the truth, Stiles is not the best dancer in the world. She apparently had no dance training of any kind when she took this role and only crammed in enough ballet and hip-hop beforehand to get by. But in reality, if she had suddenly become a perfect dancer over the course of a few weeks, it would have sunk this movie. Save the Last Dance shares the same amateur spirit as Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, where enthusiasm outweighed skill.

In a Hollywood where even Denzel Washington doesn't get to kiss his white leading ladies, Save the Last Dance shows remarkable daring in depicting its interracial relationship between Sara and Derek. Their bond grows out of friendship and respect rather than hormones. The movie even discusses various race-on-race issues; that Sara is a well-off white girl who swoops in and steals the best and the brightest of the black men (Derek has been accepted to the pre-med program at Georgetown University). A wonderful scene has Sara on her first day of school deciding where to sit in the cafeteria, with the one small table of white kids, or with one of the other groups of intimidating black kids.

Director Thomas Carter (Swing Kids, Metro) is the movie's biggest liability. He lacks the finesse to get through any scene of delicate dialogue. He hammers through it without giving the cast the proper space to breathe. The result is phony-sounding exchanges between perfectly capable actors. In addition, the dance scenes lack the energy the movie is shooting for. It wants to be catalogued with the likes of Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing (according to the publicity package), but doesn't ever get the audience's toes tapping.

Stiles doesn't project much energy, herself. She's still a bit green and a bit stiff -- her little scrunched-up face framed in baby fat still hasn't developed any interesting character. But she's appropriately low-key for this movie. Someone more bombastic like Reese Witherspoon or Christina Ricci would have been too top-heavy and the movie would have collapsed under their weight. Aside from Stiles, the entire cast gives outstanding, fiery performances. Kinney especially extinguishes the cliche that dads in teen movies have to be good-hearted idiots.

Save the Last Dance realizes that some teenagers want more than to go to the prom and get laid. Some teenagers face hard choices and lack the experience to know what to say or ask for help. Though the movie suffers from cornball plot twists and clunky dialogue here and there, it stays true to itself... an admirable trait.

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