Save the Last Dance
Save the Last Dance

USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 112 minutes.

Cast: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry Washington, Fredro Starr, Terry Kinney, Bianca Lawson, Vince Green, Garland Whitt, Elisabeth Oas, Artel Jarod Walker, Cory Stewart, Jennifer Anglin
Writers: story and screenplay by Duane Adler; screenplay by Cheryl Edwards
Music: Mark Isham (score)
Cinematographer: Robbie Greenberg
Producers: Robert W. Cort, David Madden
Director: Thomas Carter


Grade: B- Review by Claudia Smurthwaite

Though I'm loath to admit it, I'm a few years past the target age of this film. I took my fourteen-year-old, high school dance-team-member niece, who does fit the profile. She loved it. Loved the dancing, loved the music, loved the story, and I'm quite certain her grade would be in the A range. However, she's not writing this review, her young-at-heart auntie is.

Can ballet and hip-hop coexist? Can a sheltered white girl from the 'burbs find friends and her heart's desire in the inner city? Is Julia Stiles a star on the rise? Yes, yes, and yes. Save the Last Dance could be considered Dirty Dancing (1987) for the hip-hop generation. Sara (Stiles) is Baby, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) is tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, Johnny Castle, Derek's sister Chenille (Kerry Washington in a wonderful supporting performance), is Cynthia Rhodes, and the music is hip-hop and rap instead of '60s pop and soul.

Sara is a ballet dancer who aspires to study at Julliard, but fails when she learns her mother has been killed in a car accident rushing to see her daughter's audition. In the wake of her mother's death, Sara is sent to live with her estranged jazz-musician father in the inner city. Without her mother's support, Sara puts away her toe shoes and concentrates on finding her way in her new life. At school, there are metal detectors and students must wear ID badges. In class, Derek, who is not quite convinced that this white girl knows much about black authors, challenges Sara. Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia StilesChenille teaches Sara to mind her backpack in the halls so it isn't stolen and saves her from the nerd table at lunch. Sara goes clubbing with Chenille and Derek, despite his skepticism that the girl can dance. Little does he know...

At the club, Sara discovers that not all dance steps are created equal. While she can pirouette with the best of them, she can't exactly bust a move. Derek offers to teach Sara the finer points of hip-hop dancing and, in the process reawakens her ballet dreams. Stiles and Thomas share an easy chemistry as Sara and Derek learn more about each other. The two begin to fall in love, as Derek is torn between the violence of his past and a bright a future at Georgetown.

The film does not tie up everything neatly; the characters must make choices as they grow up. Though the Magic-8-Ball might say "All signs point to yes" when it comes to happily ever after, we are still left wondering over several characters' fates.

Stiles cements her place among today's top young actresses. Often cast in the girlfriend role, including the underage temptress in David Mamet's State and Main (2000), and supporting turns as Ophelia to Ethan Hawke's Hamlet (2000) and Freddie Prinze's college sweetheart in Down to You (2000), Save the Last Dance gives Stiles a chance to shine a lead role. She deftly mixes the drama with a dash of comedy, and though she's not a trained dancer, is equal to the challenge of portraying the classically trained ballerina-cum-club kid. Hip-hop is already popular, so Save the Last Dance isn't likely to spawn a national dance craze like Dirty Dancing did, but the film will play well with the high school and college crowds, especially those looking to escape the cinematic equivalents of today's prefabricated pop-music offerings. Those not into hip-hop or rap shouldn't let the music scare them away from Save the Last Dance. I wouldn't know Snoop Dogg from Ice Cube (two artists whose work is featured in the film), but found more than enough to hold my interest. Excellent performances from the leads and the sharply drawn supporting players, in addition to several nice, subtly delivered messages make Save the Last Dance a film that adults and parents shouldn't shy away from.

Review © February 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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