Save the Last Dance (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Save the Last Dance, a movie about finding salvation on the dance stage, takes a little Pygmalion, a little Romeo and Juliet, and a lot of formula, wraps them up with a neat bow, and delivers a passably entertaining package. The film stumbles not so much in its strict adherence to the expected, but in its sometimes facile and unconvincing resolution of complex issues (interracial relationships, grief and its associated guilt, escaping the snare of gang wars and urban violence). Also, the use of dance as a channel to redemption is not as fresh as it would have seemed a year ago. In the interim, Center Stage and Billy Elliot have offered some of the same ideas. However, balancing out Save the Last Dance's weaknesses are energetic choreography and strong acting, and these two factors go a long way towards mitigating the problems associated with the film's less effective elements.

While Billy Elliot and Center Stage are appropriate touchstones for Save the Last Dance because all three films deal with ballet in one form or another, the circumstances of the lead character in this movie are actually closer to those of the protagonist in Karen Kusama's Girlfight. Although numerous issues are being employed as grist for director Thomas Carter's mill in Save the Last Dance, the film's core is centered upon a young woman's struggle to find the inner strength to move forward while living in a harsh, unforgiving, urban environment. However, when it comes to the quality of the writing, Save the Last Dance falls considerably short of the mark set by Girlfight. The characters are not as deeply realized, the dialogue is not as crisp, and the plotting has a distinctly scripted feel to it.

Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) has spent her entire life training for a career in dance, but, when her mother dies in a traffic accident on the day of her unsuccessful audition for Julliard, she gives it all up. Forced to live with her estranged, bohemian father (Terry Kinney) in a Chicago ghetto, she finds herself as one of the few white girls in a predominantly black high school. There, she meets and befriends Chenille (Kerry Washington), a fun-loving teenage mother. Nikki's brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), has one of the most promising futures of any student at school - he has already been accepted at Georgetown and has aspirations of becoming a pediatrician. His initial relationship with Sara is contentious, but, as the two get to know each other, the attraction grows - especially once Derek becomes her mentor in hip-hop and rekindles her interest in ballet. But Derek's bright future is not secure because the violent tendencies of his best friend, Malakai (Fredro Starr), threaten to involve him in a street war.

It doesn't take much in the way of prognostication skills to determine that the climax of Save the Last Dance will have Sara giving some sort of performance, nor is it difficult to guess many of the plot points that the movie will hit along the way. The most frustrating aspect of the production is that the occasionally trite screenplay fails to attain the level necessary to match the talent of the lead performers. The movie addresses social issues, such as the resentment that can fester as a result of an interracial coupling, but soft-pedals some of the real difficulties by employing a "love conquers all" resolution. It's as if the film is uncomfortable about frightening away its core teenage audience by being too gritty or venturing too far from the anticipated formula. Save the Last Dance may be sincere in its intentions, and there's no evidence of a lack of ambition (it skims over enough issues for three or four more tightly focused movies), but an unwillingness to genuinely shock or challenge viewers represents its most pervasive flaw.

The work of Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas elevates Save the Last Dance to a level where it is not only watchable, but moderately entertaining. In addition to exhibiting real chemistry, these two have the ability to make the tired dialogue sound less stale and the cliché-riddled plot feel less half-baked. In a relatively short time, Stiles has built an impressive resume, with appearances in two movies based on Shakespeare plays (10 Things I Hate About You, Hamlet) and a key supporting role in a David Mamet movie (State and Main). She has a natural ability and an unforced charm (not to mention the requisite athleticism) that make it easy to accept Sara as much more than a writer's construct. Similar comments can be made about Thomas. His list of credits may not be as impressive as Stiles' (his most recent outing was as one of the goons-turned-vampires in Dracula 2000), but his performance is.

Save the Last Dance was probably given the kiss-of-death opening date in January not because it's a bad movie (which most early year releases are), but because Paramount couldn't figure out how to market the film. Even the best "issues" movies often have difficulty finding an audience, and this one is far from the cream of the crop. Save the Last Dance is worth seeing to appreciate what Stiles and Thomas can do with the material, but I'm not sure it's worth spending the kind of money that movie theaters are charging for tickets.

Save the Last Dance (United States, 2001)

Director: Thomas Carter
Cast: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Terry Kinney, Fredro Starr, Vince Green, Bianca Lawson
Screenplay: Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards
Cinematography: Robbie Greenberg
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2001-01-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1