|Save the Last Dance
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 12 January
the start, Save the Last Dance looks like just another teen
romance film. It has all the familiar ingredients -- the pretty
couple, a high school setting, troubles with parents, troubles with
cliques, and a major ambition to be achieved. However, it also
brings more than you might expect, namely, two talented actors as
the pretty couple -- Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas -- and a
script, by Duane Adler, that for the most part, treats hiphop
culture, its teen protagonists, and its audience with some respect.
film opens with Sara (Stiles) riding a train from her Illinois
hometown to the big city, Chicago. As she gazes sadly out the window
at the rushing landscape, she remembers for you the circumstances of
her move. Once a talented young ballerina with great ambitions, now
she's grieving the loss of her mother, who died in a car wreck while
rushing to be at her daughter's Juilliard audition. The flashback
lays out this trauma as it will affect young Sara for the rest of
the film -- lots of scenes showing hugs and kisses with mom, then,
Sara blowing her audition at precisely the moment that her mother's
car crashes. Of course, she feels enormously guilty, believing that
her mother would still be alive if it weren't for her.
now Sara faces a new beginning, living with her scrungey jazz
musician father Roy (Terry Kinney, strong in an underwritten part),
in a tiny apartment on the South Side. Immediately, she's plunged
into a world that is completely opposite of her previous experience.
Not only has she given up dancing, but she's now confronted with a
student population, where she is -- on screen, anyway -- the only
white member (on the phone, Sara's best friend from back home asks
if she's seen any murders and promises to pray for her). But Sara is
not easily intimidated. On her first day in English class, she
tangles with Derek (Thomas), when he challenges her good-student's
formalist analysis of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, by
saying that it served a more important social and political
function, by making "white folks back then" realize that
violence could invade even their safe Midwestern homes, adding that
it was an old story and even an old technique for black folks, who
knew -- as Sara does not -- that Richard Wright had already made the
case in his work.
all this sounds a little heady for a teen romance, it is. It also
demonstrates that Save the Last Dance has more on its mind
than the usual angst over what to wear to the prom. Sara not only
has to adapt to a culture that most suburban white kids only glimpse
via Jay Z CDs or bling bling videos on MTV, but she also has to come
to terms with her own limited self-consciousness, including the fact
that, as a privileged kid, she's never had to grapple with the daily
issues -- violence, fear, poverty -- common to so many other
populations, both urban and rural. This isn't to say that Save
the Last Dance is flawless or even wholly enlightened. It falls
back on a few cliches to get its points across, for instance,
pitting Sweet Sara against a Bad Girl (Derek's jealous
ex-girlfriend, played by Bianca Lawson). They engage in a bit of
brutal competition on the dance floor and the basketball court (the
fight here is a bit of a surprise -- and their inability to talk it
out afterwards is actually fine, less contrived than if they had).
You've likely seen these scenes before in other movies.
you've also seen Derek's subplot, specifically, his longtime
friendship with his boy Malakai, played by the magnetic rapper
Fredro Starr (sorry, Firestarr), late of Onyx. Starr here reprises a
role he can probably play in his sleep by now -- after doing it in Strapped,
Clockers, and last year's Light It Up, to name a few
-- that is, the hyperactive, ever-ready-to-roll, bad-boy banger.
This business inevitably leads Derek to face a terrible choice,
between his own future (college, the white girl) and loyalty to his
friend during a neighborhood showdown. Sara's cliche is equally
silly. In her Flashdance trajectory, she's the
"real" (i.e., ballet) dancer, who finally triumphs at her
audition for a panel of snobby-looking Juilliard judges when she
learns to incorporate (not to say appropriate) "street"
knowledge and skills. In this case, she lucks out that Derek, in
addition to being a brilliant student, loyal friend, and responsible
brother, is also a great hiphop dancer. Over the course of their
informal rehearsals (Derek: "Want to get together sometime, to
work on your movies?"), they fall in love.
all this said, though, Save the Last Dance does offer a
relationship that you may not have seen previously, at least not in
the shape it takes here. This is the friendship between Sara and
Derek's sister, Chenille (the super-charismatic Kerry Washington), a
single mom who's completing her high school degree and has some
definite opinions about what it means for white girls to date black
boys. These opinions come to light during a conversation they girls
have while sitting in a clinic waiting room full of mothers and
babies, and they reveal (without entirely resolving) some sensitive
questions that don't often come up in mainstream teen movies.
my money, it's the girls' friendship that holds the film together.
Almost as soon as Sara arrives, Chenille "adopts" her,
sitting with her in the cafeteria and bringing her along to Stepps,
a hiphop dance club, where, Sara discovers, all her years of
training mean little. Here the dance moves are, as Chenille might
say, "slamming" (and they're choreographed by Fatima, who
created the dances in Michael Jackson's video for "Remember the
Time," Aaliyah's "Try Again," and the Backstreet
Boys' "Larger Than Life," among other videos).
true that Sara learns the steps and is accepted by the other kids
pretty quickly -- hey, it's a movie. But the dance scenes inject Save
the Last Dance with all kinds of energy (not unlike the
cheerleading competition scenes in Bring It On), and more
importantly, they show just how the girls connect. It's telling that
in the last club scene, under the closing credits, it's the girls
who are dancing together, joyous in their shared love of music and
movement. High school movie romances are one thing, but the hiphop
alliances, those are forever.
Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's interview.
Sean Patrick Thomas
PG-13 - Parents
Some material ma
be inappropriate for
children under 13