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(2001) (Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas) (PG-13)

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Drama: A sullen, white teenager moves to a new city to live with her estranged father and finds her passion for ballet re-ignited when she starts seeing a black student at her school.
Sarah Johnson (JULIA STILES) is a white, 17-year-old who once dreamed of going to Julliard to study ballet, but gave up on that notion when her mother was killed in a car accident on the way to her audition. Still haunted by the guilt of that, Sarah has now traveled to inner city Chicago to live with her estranged father, Roy (TERRY KINNEY), a jazz trumpeter.

Enrolling in a predominantly black high school, Sarah obviously stands out, and immediately clashes with Derek Reynolds (SEAN PATRICK THOMAS), a bright student in her English class. Fortunately for Sarah, another black student, Chenille (KERRY WASHINGTON), who just so happens to be Derek's sister and an unwed mother, befriends her and the sullen teen slowly begins to fit in.

That's not to say that she doesn't encounter various obstacles, one of which is Nikki (BIANCA LAWSON), Derek's former girlfriend who isn't happy to see a budding romance now developing between him and Sarah. The same holds true for Malakai (FREDRO STARR), Derek's best friend and current criminal thug, who thinks Sarah's coming between them and softening up Derek too much.

As Derek helps rekindle Sarah's passion for dancing and coaches her for a new audition with Julliard, the two must deal with their feelings toward each other as well as the reaction of others to their interracial relationship.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Although it's not a hard and fast rule, many "dance" films seem to follow a similar underlying structure. Beyond obviously involving various dance numbers of any variety of styles/genres, they almost always involve a protagonist who's either an outsider and/or a character at odds with the locals.

They then get involved in a "forbidden" or at least somewhat controversial romance and then use dancing as a way to fit, gain acceptance or liberate the dance-impaired or repressed. One only need think of films such as "Footloose," "Grease" and "West Side Story" or last year's entries in the genre, "Coyote Ugly" and "Center Stage" as examples containing one or more of those elements.

It's obviously a repeated and successful formula - at least from the standpoint of selling the initial story - but such repetition not only generates familiarity but also predictability. One knows that the protagonist will initially feel like an outsider and won't be accepted into the local group, clique or town, etc. Yet, someone will eventually befriend them (and deliver necessary exposition about others and the local scene), a love interest will bloom, and the music, of course, will set them free in one manner or the other.

Such is the case with "Save the Last Dance," a surprisingly flat-footed dance film that doesn't stray far from the formula. For those concerned that the "surprise" of how the film will turn out is now ruined, you really didn't expect the film to end on an unhappy note, where the outside is never accepted and breaks both of their legs while dancing, now did you?

What may be surprising to fans of the genre, however, is how boring and uninspired the dance numbers are and how much of the film is probably a bit more somber than they'd imagined, expected or hoped it would be.

Similar to "Center Stage" in that it mixes ballet with contemporary music and dance numbers, the film's dramatic moments revolve around three pivotal issues. First and foremost, there's the whole interracial romance matter. Despite this being a new millennium and more than thirty years having passed since the topic was explored in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," director Thomas Carter ("Metro," "Swing Kids") and screenwriters Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards (making their debut) seem to think such relationships are still taboo or at least lightning rods for controversy/publicity.

While I'm sure there are those who still get up in arms over such couplings, this story brings nothing new to that table, but does recycle plenty of old clichés in its after school type approach at tackling the material.

Then there's the whole bit about the male protagonist being caught up in a potentially dangerous friendship with a local thug. This similarly isn't particularly novel or fresh, and both the setup and resultant developments near always feel more contrived than realistic.

Notwithstanding the obligatory allegiance due to his criminal friend taking all of the heat for a crime they both committed in the past, there's no way the protagonist would jeopardize his way out of the "hood" - by being accepted to Georgetown's premed school - by even considering being seen with this thug, let alone going along on a drive-by shooting. It's all designed in an effort to generate some conflict as well as "Oh no, don't do it" responses from the viewers, but the mechanisms of such efforts are too obvious and familiar to be effective.

The third, and most successful element involves the female protagonist's sense of guilt over her mother's accidental death. While the filmmakers aren't treading any new waters here with such material, it does work better than most of the rest of what the film has to offer, including the uninspired and low-voltage dance numbers.

While the filmmakers could argue that they were making a drama that includes some dancing rather than the other way around, they forgot to inject those moments with anything to make them remarkable. The club numbers - set to various lame, hip-hop and/or rap music - are surprisingly flat, even with the inclusion of some "dirty dancing" style bumping and grinding.

The ballet bits also lack any zest, including the big last number that's supposed to get the audience pumped and cheering. Cut like a music video, few shots last longer than several seconds. The result, while perhaps appealing to MTV fans, will give everyone else the impression that actress Julia Stiles and/or her ballet stand-in couldn't do the number in a convincingly continuous fashion.

As far as the acting performances are concerned, Stiles ("State and Main," "10 Things I Hate About You") and Sean Patrick Thomas ("Cruel Intentions," "Courage Under Fire") certainly have their share of onscreen charisma and easily transcend the material and dialogue they've been given to work with. Nevertheless, they can't save the production.

The supporting performances and characters are all pretty much rote for a film like this, with Fredro Starr ("Light It Up," "Sunset Park"), Bianca Lawson (TV's "Dawson's Creek" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and Kerry Washington ("Our Song") all duly playing their parts and recycling various stereotypes.

Due to such familiarity and the lack of any burning fire in either the dramatic or dance departments, the film can't do much more than simmer and come off as lukewarm leftovers when it should have been a boiling hot dish. "Save the Last Dance" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed January 5, 2001 / Posted January 12, 2001

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