Save the Last Dance

2001's first sleeper hit, this movie's box office success surprised everybody - even its own producers. I must admit, when I saw it (at a free employee screening at Paramount), even I wondered if anybody would go to it. It is, after all, a black-themed story with a white girl at the center. And it's about dancing! By the guy who made Swing Kids!

So why did it work for so many people? You got me. I suppose because it's fairly agreeable entertainment, if not much else.

Julia Stiles plays Sara, a white teenager from the Northeast whose ballet aspirations are shattered when her mother is killed en route to her Juilliard audition. Forced to move to Chicago to live with the jazz-musician father who abandoned her years earlier, she tries to adjust to her new life in the city's south side, where she is enrolled in a nearly all-black high school. Her racial isolation doesn't seem to faze her, though, and in no time she is picking up friends and hanging out with Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), a smart, handsome black student who sees that Sara's got some moves. He thus takes it upon himself to teach her the joys of hip hop dancing.

Sara and Derek fall in love, of course, but the film does contain some honest insights about the risks of interracial romance. Its distinctly African-American point of view adds freshness to a tired setup, and I'm sure that director Carter's own ethnicity (he is black) is much responsible for the sympathetic - rather than white-fright cautionary - portrayal of inner-city life. And the story is at least wise enough not to suggest that these two live together happily ever after, just long enough to use their talents to get them the hell out of that suffocating neighborhood.

While Save the Last Dance has a naive but harmless premise, Carter's direction is rather bland, and the story settles into the usual collection of cliches and contrivances (Derek's best friend is a gangster just asking for trouble; Sara's ballet dreams are obviously going to rekindle; etc.).

While the the cast is competent if not spectacular, I lay my blame for my apathy towards this film at the feet of Julia Stiles. With her womanly voice and thousand-yard scowl, she projects a very gloomy screen presence indeed. Though it works for her shell-shocked character, it did nothing to endear her to me. The girl is just too icy to love. In a few years she could make a wonderful femme fatale - perhaps a Veronica Lake type. But as a cute teenage heroine, she just doesn't do it for me.

Fine choreography by Randy Duncan and Fatima, though.