Save the Last Dance
Director: Thomas Carter. Cast: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry Washington, Fredro Starr, Terry Kinney, Bianca Lawson, Vince Green. Screenplay: Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards (based on a story by Duane Adler).

A passable teen romantic drama whose virtues are mostly loaded into its early-middle section: a vibrant soundtrack, compelling cast of characters, and appealing lead performances from Julia Stiles, playing a high-school senior whose dreams of Juilliard are deferred by her mother's death in an auto crash, and from Sean Patrick Thomas, the sensitive, intelligent rival-then-boyfriend who is trying to recover from incidents in his own past. Stiles' outsider status within a nearly all-black high school (after Mom's death forces new living arrangements with her estranged Dad in Chicago) is crucial to the story without becoming a neurotic obsession in itself, nor is the interracial aspect of her romance with Thomas a reason for sensation. Director Thomas Carter and his screenwriters have their eye on more than melanin as they survey a whole host of Urban High School Issues, circa 2001: romantic rivalries, teen pregnancy, dreams of university, and loyalty to friends whose actions are unsanctionable. Save the Last Dance has enough breadth of ideas to make it more than just Footloose or Dirty Dancing for a new crop of high-schoolers.

And yet, "survey" is the right word, because the film becomes less and less concerted as it progresses: Stiles' eventual Will Hunting-style purgation of grief is almost paltry compared to its protracted build-up; subplots emphasizing Thomas' best friend Malakai, his sister Chenille, and his own aspirations to pursue a degree in pediatrics are all increasingly subsumed by Stiles' dancing and the gig about star-crossed lovers. The dancing isn't bad, but the editing hasn't done much to occlude the interventions of body doubles, so we are less and less persuaded that these characters are great talents. The actors keep you engaged enough to see the movie through to the end, but one wishes they had elicited the same level of sustained interest from the screenwriters. Grade: C

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