*Save the Last Dance (PG-13)
Most of the movies that were opening last Friday looked so unappealing that my editor, bless her heart, told me I could spare myself Armageddon, or dumb sexist palaver, or slasher Valentine flicks and go see something nice instead. We decided on Save the Last Dance, which is nice indeed. I'm really not damning it with faint praise here -- the film is well-intentioned, well-crafted and well-acted, and if it doesn't exactly revolutionize race relations in the United States, it does a damn sight better than recent claptrap like The Legend of Bagger Vance.
One of the ways it manages to find its way around stupid racist pitfalls is by giving the two main characters, Sara (Julia Stiles), a white suburban girl whose mother is killed in an auto accident and Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), a black inner city boy who dreams of getting out of the ghetto, equal weight.
Sara had a dream before her mother was killed -- to go to Julliard and become a ballet dancer, although she has since shelved her toe shoes. Derek, for his part, wants to go to Georgetown and eventually become a pediatrician, but like Sara, his past loyalties haunt him. In Derek's case, though, it isn't a ghost but his very real friend, Malakai (Fredro Starr) to whom he owes a big debt of friendship that may well keep him from his dreams.
These two strivers find one another in the urban Chicago high school when Sara goes to live with her father (Terry Kinney), a jazz musician who lives in an entirely black neighborhood. She is befriended by Chenille (Kerry Washington), Derek's hip sister and brought into the social life of the young hip-hop crowd of the high school.
Almost everything about Save the Last Dance works smoothly. Stiles is a very accomplished actress who pulls off all of her scenes, be they with adults or other teens, with great aplomb. She works well opposite Thomas who radiates the compassion called for by his character. (If the writers stretch the believability of both Sara's naivete and her ability to fit in so quickly, it was all in the service of the story.) Interestingly, I particularly noted how good the editing was in Save the Last Dance.
Obviously, the writer (Duane Adler), the director (Thomas Carter II) and the editor (Peter Berger) all had a very good sense of timing -- no scene was too long or too short, the stories of the characters were all told with a great sense of economy but without a rush.
If Save the Last Dance broke no new ground, either in characterization, emotional depth or race relations, at the very least it did nothing to perpetuate the most egregious of stereotypes. This in itself is a major happening for a mainstream film. Add a little good music, from Tchaikovsky to Lucy Pearl, a little dancing, some good humor and some fetching romance, and Save the Last Dance makes for an all-around decent flick.