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'Save the Last Dance'

'Save the Last Dance' treads over familiar territory

Friday, January 12, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

'Dance' routine

If only the rest of "Save the Last Dance" told its story as efficiently as the credit sequence handles the exposition -- or, for that matter, if it told a story we haven't seen a hundred times before.

'Save The
Last Dance'

RATING: PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language and brief drug references.

PLAYERS: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas.

DIRECTOR: Thomas Carter.

WEB SITE: www.savethelast



What's different about this movie is not the plot but its interracial leads. Julia Stiles plays Sara, a small-town girl who wanted to be a dancer. But she flubs an audition at Juilliard, and when her mother dies in a car accident, she must move in with her father (Terry Kinney), a jazz musician who lives in a rough neighborhood on Chicago's South Side.

She makes friends at her new, predominantly black high school on the very first day, including Chenille (Kerry Washington) and her smart, handsome brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas).

Before long, Sara and Derek are an item. He tries to revive her hopes of becoming a dancer. She learns of his troubled past, which is personified by his pal Malakai (Fredro Starr), who still participates in illegal activities and tries to lure Derek into joining him through a sense of loyalty (he got caught while helping Derek escape on an earlier scrape with the law). But Derek has hopes of getting into college and knows Malakai's path leads to a dead end.

Only the romance between Sara and Derek takes this movie out of familiar territory. Yet the screenplay by Cheryl Edwards and Duane Adler (whose original script was about his experiences as the only white player on his high-school basketball team) tends to skim over the racial aspect except when the movie needs a motivational kick in the pants.

For example, you might think Sara would undergo a considerable culture shock at her new school, and director Thomas Carter hints at it when he shows most of the other white students sitting together at their own lunch table. Instead, Sara quickly gets invited to the local dance club, where the only person to raise a fuss about her presence is Derek's former girlfriend.

Near the end of the film, when the lovers must have their inevitable squabble -- one that could lead to Derek joining Malakai in his deadly games -- Chenille acts the catalyst by starting in on how black women resent white women poaching on the pick of the black men. The sentiment may be valid, but there's no reason to believe that Sara's best friend would throw it in her face after all this time.

Carter, who is black, tries to give us an evenhanded view of life at an inner-city school, which is welcome. But the movie stalls once Sara becomes acclimated to her surroundings, and we spend far too much time watching the mandatory scenes of teen-agers dancing at the hip-hop club (the movie was co-produced by MTV Films).

Stiles and Thomas are appealing in the lead roles, but their low-key portrayals add somewhat to the torpor (and Stiles is not exactly believable as a dancer). As for Carter, who was one of TV's best directors in the 1980s, he has never been able to transfer that talent onto the big screen -- his previous films were the disastrous "Swing Kids" and the formulaic Eddie Murphy cop caper "Metro."

"Save the Last Dance" represents an improvement over those two films. But, in the end, it's still "Flashdance" without the flash.

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