Save the Last Dance opens somberly on Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles), riding the train home from school and reflecting on her experiences as a dancer. Those experiences are in the past after her mother died in a traffic accident on the day of her failed audition for Julliard. Guilt-ridden and low on options, she’s quit on her dreams and is forced to live with her estranged, bohemian father (Terry Kinney) in a rather unsavory part of Chicago.
As such, she’s one of the few white girls in her new, predominately Black high school. Chenille (Kerry Washington) is quick to assure she has not only one friend but someone who will show her this isn’t the suburbs and leaving your bag unattended will result in it getting snatched. Chenille has a child but a supportive mother while her brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), is a good student with a promising future at Georgetown. His initial relationship with Sara is prickly following a debate about Truman Capote in English class, but the two wind up getting to know each other. Attraction brews even stronger when Derek starts mentoring Sara in hip-hop dancing, rekindling her interest in ballet.
Derek also finds himself in a tug-of-war between pursuing his dreams of being a pediatrician while trying to keep his lifelong friend Malakai (Fredro Starr) out of trouble. Malakai runs with local gangs and sees himself as another cog in a wheel that has rolled over the futures of a lot of Chicago youths with limited options. In a tender scene late in the film, Derek tries to assure him that he has a future that’s brighter than this one. All while he runs the risk of jeopardizing his scholarship.
Save the Last Dance is kept afloat by quality writing from Duane Adler (who would later go on to pen Step Up) and Cheryl Edwards, who know that it’s the dancing we welcome but the characters we embrace. Despite initial apprehensions, I was pleased to discover this isn’t a platitude-laden story revolving around troubled Black teenagers and a fish-out-of-water white girl who learns life in the inner-city is bleak for many kids. Director Thomas Carter (who would go on to direct the similarly touching drama Coach Carter, which has become a cable TV staple) is less concerned with form and genre and more tethered to humanizing his cast of relatable characters.
This is shown when Chenille begins to harbor malice towards Sara the closer she gets to Derek. Sara can’t understand the contention. Chenille enlightens her in a charged scene. “You come and take one of the few decent men left after drugs, jail, and drive-bys.” There’s a feeling on her part that Sara’s arrival and subsequent courtship of Derek was sadly typical, albeit a shallow outlook. Sara isn’t perfect either, throwing a tantrum after Derek treats her to a ballet show in Chicago. No one escapes Adler and Edwards’ screenplay without wearing a few of their flaws.
The underwhelming aspect of Save the Last Dance is the choreography, shockingly enough. Bland routines and oft-indistinguishable videography dampen its impact. I wasn’t too heartbroken at the end of the day. By comparison, Bring It On had strong choreography and a sleek visual look but was severely lacking in the narrative department. When faced with a trade-off, I’d take the Save the Last Dance approach and simply salvage the last dance.
Starring: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry Washington, Fredro Starr, and Terry Kinney. Directed by: Thomas Carter.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality in North Central Illinois. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!