Beneath its hip-hop gear, “Save the Last Dance” is as basic as a teen drama can be. Neither especially inspired nor unpalatably saccharine, this tale of a white girl trying to fit into black life on Chicago’s South Side while recovering her passion for ballet is grounded in bedrock formula and earnestness. With its themes of racial harmony and good high school kids realizing their dreams, pic avoids easy exploitation. This unexpectedly serious, early-January entry from Paramount and MTV Films will appeal to the best qualities in the young date crowd, who will hold hands and listen in modest but not chart-busting numbers.
Instead of the teen movie’s usual sarcastic or happy-face opening notes, intro of terpsichorean heroine Sara (Julia Stiles) is unusually melancholy: We see her taking a train to Chicago and recalling the car crash that killed her mother, who was racing to catch Sara’s tryout for the Juilliard School’s ballet program. The melodramatic backstory over opening credits is compact but too sketchy in its attempt to present Sara as both a young person who’s given up her ballet dreams and an innocent white girl from outside the city.
Taken in by her estranged dad, Roy (Terry Kinney), who lives in a rotting South Side flat and works by night as a jazz trumpeter, Sara must adjust not only to her new home life but to Wheatley High School, where she’s just about the only Anglo on campus.
Director Thomas Carter (“Swing Kids,” “Metro”) tries not to portray the inner-city school as a Hollywood nightmare of black ghetto life, but in doing so, he tends to smooth the rough edges and the tough every-day realities of contempo public schools. Sara tries to keep her innocent shock at the unfamiliar scene hidden, but Stiles’ innate coolness tends to make her remote. Smart-as-a-whip Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) has a way of provoking Sara, though, and soon she’s learning to trash-talk back to him, amusing Derek’s sister Chenille (Kerry Washington).
Friction being attraction, Derek can’t resist asking Sara out on the dance floor at the hot local club, Stepps, but it’s quickly clear that Sara doesn’t know her hip from her hop. It’s just as clear that the script by Duane Adler (from his story) and Cheryl Edwards will serve up characters who are here simply as blunt obstacles for Derek and Sara to overcome: For him, it’s his best friend, gangsta-in-training Malakai (Fredro Starr), Mercutio to Derek’s Romeo; for her, it’s obnoxious Nikki (Bianca Lawson), who recently dumped Derek and considers Sara a one-woman threat to black women everywhere.
The drama’s gears don’t always mesh, and pic’s midsection meanders in various undeveloped directions. While Stiles and Thomas work up a cuddly chemistry as their romance takes flight — Thomas is especially warm and inviting — his character is sometimes reduced to a mere instrument, allowing Sara to get in touch with her soulful side, delivering pep talks when she decides to reapply to Juilliard. Disparate bits, such as Chenille’s life with hopeless b.f. Kenny (Garland Whitt), who can’t be a dad to her baby, are glimpsed rather than explored. And the idea that Derek, who’s ready to attend Georgetown U. and study to be a pediatrician, would even entertain the idea of going on a drive-by with Malakai — despite their past history of mutual loyalty — is preposterous.
Fortunately, “Save the Last Dance” backs away from what could have been a half-baked “Romeo and Juliet”-like tragedy and ends on an appropriate note of optimism.
Stiles takes a while to get inside this girl’s conflicts, but her performance, and her dancing, blossom in a pleasant, spirited way. Despite his impossibly good character (a close cousin to black literary wunderkind Jamal in “Finding Forrester”), Thomas projects a potently attractive self-confidence that would win over a gal like Sara. Washington’s perf ensures that moody Chenille is more than mere support. Kinney’s role feels trimmed, preventing us from seeing his jazz world, which surely would be a revelation to Sara.
Filmmakers ensured pic’s PG-13 rating by keeping the sexual element well out of sight. Except for a romantic interlude with the young lovers watching the Joffrey Ballet at the Chicago Theater, location work emphasizes the rough parts of mostly chilly Chitown — without getting too rough. Mark Isham’s uncharacteristically drippy score, devoid of the slightest tincture of hip-hop, belongs in another movie.