At quick glance, Julia Stiles’ filmography is far from impressive. The teen comedies “10 Things I Hate About You” and “Down to You.” Michæl Almereyda’s woefully misguided Y2K-set adaptation of “Hamlet.” Even the one step she has seemingly taken in the right direction, David Mamet’s “State and Main,” is a decidedly subpar effort from its celebrated writer-director.
But if one actually saw all of these projects, one thing is abundantly clear: while the films as a whole do not deliver, Stiles always does. She gave “10 Things” the sharp edge that the rest of the movie sorely lacked; she radiated warmth and intelligence that was otherwise absent in “Down to You”; and she more than kept up with the top-drawer ensemble casts in “Hamlet” and “State and Main.” Stiles’ latest starring vehicle, “Save the Last Dance,” continues this pattern: she rises to the occasion in an enterprise that is beneath her game efforts.
After the death of her mother, Stiles’ Sara Johnson moves to Chicago to live with her errant father (Terry Kinney), with whom she has relationship that’s tense at best. Sara has slightly less difficulty finding comfort at her predominantly African-American high school, for she is quickly taken under the wing of Chenille (Kerry Washington), an outgoing single mother. While Sara and Chenille quickly become best friends, that soon pales in comparison to Sara’s burgeoning relationship with Chenille’s ambitious brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), who helps reawaken her dream of becoming a dancer–a goal she abandoned after her mother’s untimely passing.
Unlike most teen-targeted films, “Save the Last Dance” cannot be accused of not being about anything; in fact, it tries to be about too much. In addition to being the story of Sara finding her place and reclaiming her dream, it’s also about the Sara/Derek romance, complete with all the outside stumbling blocks that come with an interracial union. It’s also about Derek’s criminal past, and whether or not he’ll fall back on the wrong side of the law with best friend Malakai (Fredro Starr). And last but certainly not least, it’s about a lily white girl learning to put some soul into her dance moves. With so many balls in the air, director Thomas Carter and writers Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards are bound to drop some, and indeed they do; their biggest slip comes in the hackneyed, overblown climax.
What works best in “Save the Last Dance” is the Sara/Derek pairing, and that’s because Stiles and Thomas are so well-matched. Not only are they instantly likable and have a genuine, gentle rapport, they also have the chops to bring real pathos to overly familiar dramatic situations. But with the title “Save the Last Dance,” acting ability is somewhat secondary to dancing ability, and Stiles and Thomas can definitely hold their own on a dance floor.
Ultimately, this talented twosome can only do so much with a script that continually lets them down at about every turn. With yet another impressive turn to her credit, Stiles has once again earned her stripes as someone to watch. But until someone puts her in a real movie, it’ll be hard to maintain the desire to keep watching.