Save the Last Dance



US 2001
director : Thomas Carter
script : Duane Adler, Cheryl Edwards (story by Adler)
cinematography : Robbie Greenberg
editing : Peter E Berger
stars : Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas
112 minutes

Save The Last Dance won’t make much impact on anybody over 20, but as teen movies go, it’s better than most. An unexpected smash at the US box office, it’s the result of producers MTV taking careful aim at its prized youth demographic and scoring a direct hit. Optimistically touted as ‘Dangerous Minds meets Billy Elliot‘, it also stirs in elements from Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, but few of the target audience are going to mind the familiarity of the plot, nor will they be bothered about the choppy script or the shortcomings of journeyman director Carter.

It’s the old ‘I wanna dance’ story of an inidividual triumphing over self-doubt, and this time the gimmick is hip-hop. Sara (Stiles) hangs up her ballet shoes when her mother, racing to see her perform, is killed in a car crash. Forced to live with her jazz-musician father (Terry Kinney) in a rough Chicago neighbourhood, Sara finds she’s virtually the only non-black student at her school, and the other girls aren’t too happy when she starts seeing prize catch Derek (Thomas), who gives her lessons in hip-hop moves.

This emphasis on ‘moves’ is slightly odd, given that hip-hop has always been more of a verbal than a physical subculture – does anyone know, for instance, if Dr Dre can dance? More’s the point, can Julia Stiles? Her character does a lot of dancing in the movie, of course, but, as with Michael Jackson videos, all the sequences are so frenziedly edited it’s hard to tell what the routines are supposed to be about. But the sulky-doll-faced Stiles, with her unexpectedly deep voice, brings a welcome gravity to a tricky role, and it fits with the unusually sombre tone of the whole affair.

The script is full of the usual conveniences and contrivances, such as Derek and Sara’s discovery of an implausibly huge, empty room for their dance practices, and his wanting to be a paediatrician – it’s never gynaecologist, or chiropractor. But the movie’s pivotal point – the black girls’ racist-tinged resentment towards Sara, whom they see as stealing away one of their few worthwhile men – is handled with surprising intelligence and complexity. Their attitudes may not be defensible but, given the tough realities of their lives, they’re eminently understandable – for just a few minutes, Save The Last Dance slips free of its teen limitations and dares to enter a grey zone of refreshingly mature ambiguity.

9th April, 2001