Though he's been known to trip the light fantastic, Judge Bill Gibron didn't quite appreciate the interracial romance of this superficial cinematic stumble.
Our review of Save The Last Dance, published June 25th, 2001, is also available.
The only person you need to be is yourself
When her mom dies the day of her Julliard audition, young dancer Sara (Julia Stiles, The Omen (2006)) is suddenly shipped off to Chicago to live with her distant, detached dad (Terry Kinney, The Laramie Project). All dreams of being a ballet diva dashed, Sara must now try to handle the horrible conditions of her new inner-city high school. At first, she's an obvious outcast, but soon, a young black girl named Chenillle (Kerry Washington, Ray) befriends her. It's not long before Sara starts eyeing her buddy's brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas, Barbershop). Tentative at first, Sean suggests he give Sara some dance lessons. While she may be great on her toes, the white girl's a tad stiff when it comes to the latest street-smart styles. Over time, and several instructional meetings, the two fall in love. This makes their friends and rivals all the angrier. They can't tolerate a blond bimbo type taking yet another gifted black brother away from the culture. As they fight for their passion, Derek devotes his time to helping Sara regain her confidence. After all, there is still another round of auditions to consider, and if she can just overcome her past and the prejudice she faces everyday, Sara just might make it to Julliard after all. With Derek's help, she will Save the Last Dance for both of them.
Though it tends to take the simple route around subjects that probably would require more depth (death of a parent, divorce, deadbeat dads, interracial romance), Save the Last Dance just wants to focus on its lovers, and when it does, the movie makes sense. Credit actor Thomas Carter, who parlayed a turn in that '70s sports drama The White Shadow into a series of TV directorial gigs, for keeping the narrative grounded in a pseudo-reality that seems sort of authentic. Granted, it's also a flimsy fairy-tale place where blacks and whites get along with begrudging respect, where drive-bys and drugs are infrequent and barely mentioned, and where goals are easily obtained by a mixture of chutzpah, preparation, and cross-cultural cribbing. Similar in sentiment to that '80s icon Flashdance, this "music is my life" excuse for melodrama has some decent moments and a few fine performances. Still, at its heart, this is just standard syrupy storytelling where everything ends up okay in the end, mostly because an audience of adolescents is just not ready to have the horrors of the real world smack them upside the head. Instead of dealing with what would really happen if a lily-white country gal ended up in the middle of the mean streets of Chicago's South Side, tolerance and talent are the basic buzzwords involved.
Of course, in an attempt to "keep it real," both of our leads have to have friends who illustrate the universally perceived dangers and pitfalls of the ghetto. For Sara, it's teen mom Chenille. Though she seems strong and understanding on the outside, a simple argument with her baby's daddy turns the character into a card-carrying racist (if only temporarily). Similarly, Derek has a life-long buddy named Malakai (apparently the names Beelzebub and/or Lucifer were already taken) who beats up drug-dependent babes in the ladies bathroom, threatens other dealers who would sneak into his "territory," and constantly tries to chide Derek into joining him for the occasional recreational shooting spree. As symbols suggesting the barriers that our couple must overcome, the two ancillary characters are about as subtle as a six-story sledgehammer. In addition, Sara has one of those hip hepcat Dads who instantly understand their little girls sexually charged maturation and does little except beg for her constantly provided understanding. Indeed, there are many missed opportunities in Save the Last Dance, chances for the characters to confront issues raised in the movie in ways that are calm and convincing. Yet instead of exploring that angle, it's back to the floorboards for some more dirty dancing.
Julia Stiles, her performance as stilted as ever and cursed with a face incapable of expressing emotion, is kewpie-doll dull as Sara. She may be able to bust the occasional move, but her moments of meaningful soul searching come across as forced and flat. Similarly, Sean Patrick Thomas has a nice, non-threatening look that seems to subliminally suggest everything the movie avoids about interracial romance and black/white issues. Unlike Fredo Starr's Malakai, who combines sexiness and scariness perfectly or Derek's provocative ex Nikki (played perfectly by Bianca Lawson), our leads are purposefully washed out and average. They don't register as real, merely people pawns in a script that continually avoids the mere mention of message or moral. Even Oz great Terry Kinney is provided substantial short shrift, given over to wearing both a hound-dog expression and a hat as his means of dimension. Without resorting to clichés, criticism, or controversy, it's hard to make interracial romance work as simply a straight story. The concept just carries too much baggage for older generations, while the demographic targeted by MTV (the makers of this movie) could care less about such old-school sentiments. It's a no-win situation, which is maybe why Save the Last Dance barely survives its two-hour filmic fight. It's knocked down more than once, yet still manages to get up and come out swinging. For that, it deserves some credit, if not complete motion-picture praise.
On the technical side, Save the Last Dance looks and sounds just fine. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is said to have some noticeable edge enhancement, but it was not obvious to this critic. Granted, some of the night scenes suffer from a lack of clarity and the occasional soft focus used to make Stiles and Thomas look all lovey-dovey can grow annoying. Yet this is a good-looking print with nary a digital defect to worry about. As for the sonics, the combination of music and dialogue is presented in a manner that is fresh and full of atmosphere. Of the two possible aural choices (Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Surround) the multi-channel offering is the best. It gives the hip-hop more depth and keeps the conversations front and center, making the discussions easily discernible.
Fans of this film, here's a question to ponder. Do you really love this movie enough to indulge in a double dip that provides very little in the way of new or intriguing bonus content? If the answer is yes, then by all means, spend that disposable income and enjoy. If you need to know a little bit more about the added features, here is what you will find. Elements left over from the original DVD release include Director Thomas Carter's interesting but rather redundant commentary (he wasn't interested in making an issue film, just a love story. Duh.), a "making-of" featurette that focuses more on musicians K-Ci and JoJo more than the actual movie, the video made for said artists, a weird "retrospective" that's more EPK than enlightening, and only two of the original disc's four deleted scenes.
It's the new material, though, that should cause consumers the most concern. The "Writers" story is incredibly boring, while the so-called "Choreographers" story is the standard dedication and hard work party line. A look at the Chicago Academy of the Arts (for something called "What It Takes") provides a far more intriguing peek at the lives of the socially stricken but personally gifted than anything the movie has to offer. Toss in the necessary product placement tie-ins for the direct-to-DVD sequel and you've got a mindless money grab disguised as a brand-new pimped-out presentation. How sad.
Without a solid source of storytelling or performance, Save the Last Dance comes off as casual and uncomplicated. As it unfolds, you do find yourself swept up in what will happen to Sara and Derek, and Carter does prove his ability behind the camera. However, this is still a movie geared toward a certain age-group mindset that many just won't fall into. Like a cinematic boy band, this film probably seemed fabulous when those who made it a hit first saw it. Five years on, the fad is guilty of fading.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary from Director Thomas Carter
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