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Save the Last Dance

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Save the Last Dance

Starring: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas
Director: Thomas Carter
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: January 2001
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Fredro Starr, Kerry Washington, Garland Whitt, Vince Green, Terry Kinney, Bianca Lawson

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

This is a movie about a romantic inter-racial relationship that neither skirts the problems involved in such an affiliation nor pretends that the black-white connection is the only issue worth discussing. "Save the Last Dance" is a film about two people who like each other very much. They're perhaps too young to be in love (despite what Nat King Cole might tell us) and who probably will not get together much after high school graduation, but who make a impact on each other that will remains with them for the rest of their lives. In the story's most telling piece of dialogue, a young white woman, Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) is sitting in a gruesome Chicago emergency room with a black friend, Chenille Reynolds (Kerry Washington) while impatiently awaiting medical attention for Chenille's baby. When Chenille warns that Sara does not really fit into the world of African-Americans, Sara replies, "I thought there was just one world." "That's what you learned," replies Chenille caustically, "But we know different."

While director Thomas Carter ("Metro," "Swing Kids") does not portray the mostly African-American Chicago neighborhood as the most desirable place to bring up a baby or to go to school, the youngsters seem anything but oppressed. The ghetto high school is savored for the most part by young people who are alive, vibrant, and involved in the one class discussion that we witness (about Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" as taught by a hip black instructor who is on his pupils' wave length). While nothing in "Save the Last Dance" could be called an innovation in the genre, the film delivers a marvelous performance by the talented Julia Stiles, who seems to be competing with Helen Hunt for each year's most prolific actress.

Stiles performs here in the role of a talented woman heavily involved in ballet, whose world crashes around her when her mother dies in a highway accident. She is compelled to give up her spiffy suburban existence and move into a mostly black neighborhood with her father, Roy (Terry Kinney), who had abandoned the family some time back and who ekes out a precarious living as a jazz trumpeter. Attending the local school, she meets a bright, seventeen- year-old African-American student, Derek Reynolds (Sean Patrick Thomas), who awaits word about his application to Georgetown University and who has dreams of becoming a pediatrician. Each enters the other's milieu, although Sara learns quite a bit more about the hip-hop generation than Derek absorbs about the world of ballet and contemporary dance.

The scenes that will probably get the teens in the audience giggling involve Derek's tutoring of Sara in the culture of young blacks: how to sit, slouched over, legs wide; how to shake your butt on the dance floor; how to deliver the dozens. Derek's lessons are supplemented by his sister Chenille's advice to Sara on how to dress to avoid looking "country." Older members of the audience might wonder why Sara would want to take on the unique polish of the African- American since, after all, shouldn't one want to be herself as the movie's tagline indicates?

The film benefits mightily from the performance of Sean Patrick Thomas as Derek. His chemistry with Ms. Stiles is palpable, convincing. Side characters do not fare as well, as Derek's friends Malakai (Fredro Starr), involved in drugs, Snookie (Vince Green), and the woman who envies and dislikes Sara's incursions into her community, Nikki (Bianca Lawson), are mere caricatures. Nor are Peter E. Berger's MTV-style editing of Stiles' dances conducive to more than a headache, though presumably the fast cuts are necessary since Stiles is not a professional dancer. Overall, "Save the Last Dance" profits from well-developed principals, an vigorous sound track provided by Mark Isham, and a feel for the grit and warmth alike of an otherwise impoverished neighborhood.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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