Imagine last year's "Billy Elliott", only change the setting from a bleak British mining town to the inner city desolation of Chicago's South Side. Then change the sex of the protagonist from male to female, make them a few years older, and have them played by a less-accomplished actor. Finally, change the catalysts for the ensuing conflicts from homophobia, economic realities, and a stern father's pride to interracial tension and self-blame, and voilà, you have "Save the Last Dance", the latest entry in the 'ballet genre' targeted at the teen demographic.
17-year old Sara (Julia Stiles, seen recently in "State and Main"), a girl with roots in small-town America, has had one dream all her life: to study at the Juilliard School and become a professional ballet dancer. Unfortunately, on the day of her big audition, Sara's dreams are shattered by a double-whammy of tragedy-- not only does she falter during her all-too-important audition, but her mother, rushing to see her daughter perform, is killed in a car accident. Devastated and disillusioned, Sara gives up on her ballet dreams, and moves to Chicago to live with her estranged jazz-musician father (Terry Kinney of HBO's "Oz").
Living in the city is quite a big adjustment for Sara, as she turns more than a few heads as one of the few white students in a predominantly black school. Fortunately, she makes fast friends with sassy schoolmate Chenille (Kerry Washington), who is also a single mother. She also comes to know Chenille's brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas of "Cruel Intentions"), a bright student who plans to pursue a career in medicine.
When Derek learns of Sara's dashed dreams of dancing professionally, he offers his assistance in adding some slammin' hip-hop moves to her repertoire, while encouraging her not to give up on her ballet. Of course, a romance blossoms out of their shared interest in dance. However, their interracial relationship is frowned upon by almost everyone, particularly Derek's ex-, Nikki (Bianca Lawson of "Primary Colors"), who doesn't appreciate 'white women' stepping on her turf, and his best friend Malakai (rapper Fredro Starr, seen recently in "Black and White"), a gangsta whose illicit lifestyle might also bring down Derek in the crossfire.
If you have seen the two other recent entries into the ballet genre, "Center Stage" or "Billy Elliott", then nothing that happens in "Save the Last Dance" should come as a surprise. There will be moments of self-doubt, reconciliation with a parent, and of course, it will all culminate into the 'big audition', where the threads of self-actualization and romance will be resolved in a gush of good cheer.
To the credit of director Thomas Carter ("Swing Kids"), the direction is satisfactory, with the energetic dance sequences well choreographed and well shot to the contempo hip-hop soundtrack. At the center of the film is the story of a young woman overcoming all odds and dismissing the naysayers to realize her dreams, on the sheer strength of her determination and talent. This is nothing new either, as this formula was successfully applied in last year's "Girlfight", and to a lesser degree, in "Coyote Ugly". Furthermore, in the case of Sara, the struggle is mostly internal, against her own beliefs and convictions, which doesn't carry the same emotional weight as overcoming external forces, such as the economic realities and homophobia faced by the titular character in "Billy Elliott".
However, one interesting aspect of the script is how this development is paralleled against the choices faced by the other characters in the story, where their own aspirations are challenged by the expectations of others. As Sara struggles to reclaim her passion for dance, her developing romance with Derek attracts plenty of disapproving looks, creating its own set of complications while further battering her self-esteem. Meanwhile, a subplot involving Malakai's underworld dealings and the need to save face pose a challenge for Derek, who is put in the precarious position of being forced to choose between his ties to the past and his yearnings for the future. In the film's most memorable moment, illustrating how fortune favors those brave enough to challenge the status quo, these two divergent paths are juxtaposed, as Sara's audition is contrasted by Malakai's fateful choice to perpetuate the vicious cycle of violence that has dominated his life.
Julia Stiles acting ability has always been suspect, as supported by her stilted performance in "Down to You" and her forgettable turn as Ophelia in "Hamlet". However, with "Save the Last Dance", there is some noticeable improvement. Her chemistry with co-star Sean Patrick Thomas is quite good, and she is able to carry most of the film with a fairly credible portrayal of a confused and frustrated young woman. However, in the film's more dramatic moments, the cracks begin to show, as her acting ability begins to waver, along with the quality of the dialogue in those key scenes. Stiles is capably supported by Thomas, who is earnest and charismatic as Sara's love interest, while Kerry Washington, despite having a few memorable scenes, ends up being wasted when her character does an implausible eleventh-hour about-face with respect to her estranged boyfriend.
Though the January movie-going period is renowned as a dumping ground for films that are not worthy of being released at any other time of year, "Save the Last Dance" manages to be a pleasant surprise. Not hitting the highs of last year's "Billy Elliott", but without stooping to the schmaltzy melodrama of "Center Stage", "Save the Last Dance" finds an easy middle ground in the ballet genre. Despite its predictable script and some less-than-stellar acting, director Thomas Carter has concocted a breezy and slick feel-good flick that offers a little substance underneath all the gloss.