Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:55 - Released 1/12/01

While teenage romances are usually only remotely palatable and aimed squarely at the teen market where they will not be under the harsh scrutiny faced by "grown-up" movies, occasionally there are those which show the promise of a young new talent, one who rises above the formulaic script and makes an impression. I felt this way about Julia Stiles when she starred in 10 Things I Hate About You, and I feel the same way about her in Thomas Carter's Save the Last Dance, an unlikely romance about a white girl moving to the projects and learning to fit in. With as much to say about race relations as your average episode of Welcome Back, Kotter, Save The Last Dance's script (by Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards) isn't going to win the Nobel Prize for peace. But Stiles and co-star Sean Patrick Thomas have a large effect on the film's success.

Stiles plays Sara Johnson, an aspiring ballerina from the midwest whose dream is marred by the fact that her supportive mother is killed in a car accident. After the tragedy, Sara drops out of dance and moves to Chicago to live with her beatnik father (Terry Kinney), a jazz trumpeter who lives in a slummy apartment in the ghetto. At her new school, Sara is one of the only white kids, but she soon finds a friend in Chenille Reynolds (Kerry Washington), who for some reason takes a liking to her. After an initially bad start, Sara also becomes friends with Chenille's brother Derek (Thomas), who seems to be the only male student in the school who cares about his studies. When Chenille invites Sara to the local dance club, Derek feels the need to teach her some hip-hop, so they begin a Dirty Dancing-style relationship, becoming ever closer, literally and figuratively. Soon they fall in love, annoying everyone from the black girl who wanted Derek for her own (Bianca Lawson) to Derek's juvenile delinquent friend (Fredro Starr) to a racist old lady on the subway. He convinces her to resurrect her dream of studying dance at Juilliard, suddenly becoming a professional dance coach.

Although this story arc is predictable, pandering, patronizing to both blacks and whites, and generally all too easy, Stiles and Thomas won me over on sheer charm. The fact that they are both fabulously attractive doesn't hurt, of course, but there is more to it than that. Stiles has an irresistible, easygoing way about her, and Thomas seems to know how to play off this quality. The two seem to click together, and their chemistry is supplemented by good performances by Washington and Starr, who, although they represent vastly different character types, adequately show the two worlds that Derek must attempt to live in at once. Indeed, the issue of blacks and whites living in different worlds is addressed several times in the text, but the script oversimplifies the race struggles to the point of insult. Still, Stiles and Thomas redeem this film over and over. And the dancing is fun to watch, too. ***½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews | See FilmQuips Archive