The Teen Dance Movie is a genre that will likely never die. Bringing together the ever-popular elements of Moving Your Feet, Falling in Love, and Fighting Against All Odds, The Teen Dance Movie echoes some of the most popular calls ever to emit from a teenage heart. Now, from MTV Films comes the genre’s latest offering, Save the Last Dance, updated here with the addition of The Jungle-Fever Component. Save the Last Dance is more love-story than dance-flick, more serious than silly, and consequently more good than bad. With some decent acting and taboo content, Save the Last Dance is a Teen Dance Movie you don’t have to remove your brain or be obsessed with getting-down to actually like.
Hence, meet Sara (Julia Stiles), a fish-out-of-water white girl who finds herself living lily-white in the ghetto after the car-crash death of her mother. Sara was an aspiring ballerina in her previous middle-class suburban existence, but after Mom bought herself a one-way pass to Heaven rushing to get to Sara’s audition to Julliard, Sara finds herself moving in with her estranged Dad on Chicago’s South Side and stuffs her toe-shoes away in a shoebox. While in her past life Sara whined about messing up her pirouettes, at Wheatley High School she’s got metal-detectors at the virtually all-black high school to worry about.
Soon after her arrival, Sara has an in-class run-in with one of the high school’s star students, a black senior named Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) with big plans to get out of the ‘hood, go to college, and become a doctor. To Derek, Sara looks like intellectual competition, but when she befriends his sister Chenille (Kerry Washington), this aspiring couple gets friendly and starts realizing they’ve got more in common than not. Sara ends up profiting from some tutoring on how to be down, transformed from GAP to groovy by Chenille on the weekend way to the local hip-hop club Stepps. And, with some coaching on the dance floor there from Derek on the art of truly stepping, Sara learns that while white men may not be able to jump, white girls can learn to shake it.
As Sara and Derek begin to move into their romantic groove, problems abound around their interracial relations. Derek’s African-American ex-girlfriend Nikki (Bianca Lawson) stirs the jealousy pot in an attempt to steal her man back. Derek’s thuggish-ruggish buddy Malakai (Fredro Starr) tries to get Derek all mixed up in some gangster trouble. Chenille, angered by her baby’s daddy’s recent dissing, lets Sara know that white girls who steal the best black men from under black women’s noses aren’t always cool. But, as the tempest brews around them, and the jealousy and violence spirals, Sara and Derek fall in love. As Derek pushes Sara to dance again, the two two-step each other towards a way out of the rough-and-tumble world they live in.
Ultimately, love always conquers all, right? Luckily, Save the Last Dance sets this rather clichéd movie idea in a relatively realistic context throughout its trip to that inevitable end. In actuality, Save the Last Dance is a dance movie without all that much dancing; the kids, in what are some of the movie’s best scenes, hang out a dance club, and Sara’s reawakening desire to be a dancer drives her character. But, Save the Last Dance is really a love-story more than a dance-movie. Perhaps the provocative nature of the film’s interracial romance geared the marketing of the movie more towards dance than race-who knows. In any case, Save the Last Dance is thankfully much more about cultures clashing and crossing, as told through characters and not caricatures.
Performances throughout are solidly decent–Stiles’ stiffish face making her accurately teenage, Thomas is a good enough bohunk to her, and Fredro Starr’s appearance as a gangster is an almost-there resurrection of the kind of performances Tupac Shakur used to offer. Ultimately, director Thomas Carter’s contribution to the project is competently unremarkable; the movie may have been better served by a director who pushed his young actors harder in their more challenging moments. But, finally, the movie’s best debt is to its original screenplay by Duane Adler, whose autobiographical script about being the only white boy on an all-black high school basketball team somehow got turned into this film. In all likelihood, Save the Last Dance owes its realism to its writer’s real experiences, and because of that, it ain’t too bad.