Disclaimer: Save the Last Dance is not exactly a family-friendly film. It’s not Showgirls or anything, but it’s not G-rated either. IMDb has a Parents’ Guide if anyone feels cautious.
There’s something visceral about performing because there’s so much emotion involved–it becomes part of a person’s identity, and it’s definitely a release. If that outlet is cut off for whatever reason, it can take a lot of doing to restore one’s confidence. Sometimes the block comes from silly old politics, and other times it’s as simple as becoming the proverbial fish out of water. Or it could be that there’s an issue to work through first. Thomas Carter’s 2001 film, Save the Last Dance, is a story about exploring one’s identity through performing and dance. It also deals with very real social issues such as race and positive versus negative choices.
If anyone doesn’t remember this movie, Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) is an aspiring ballet dancer from suburban Illinois. Her mother is killed in a car accident while rushing to see Sara audition for Juilliard, and Sara has to move in with her dad, Ray (Terry Kinney). He’s a musician who lives on the South Side of Chicago, and he and Sara have an awkward relationship because he’s never really been present for her.
Sara’s awkwardness doesn’t end there. She’s as green as kale, and living on the South Side is quite an adjustment for her. Her new school seems utterly foreign, not only because of the metal detectors and having to wear an ID at all times, but she’s one of the few white kids in the school. Keeping a low profile is out of the question–in her first class, she ends up in a debate with a guy about Truman Capote, and during the passing period she puts her backpack on the floor by her locker, only to have it swiped by a girl walking by. Fortunately, the girl was only trying to teach her something: “That’s how easy it is to give to charity around here. Don’t put your s*** on the floor.”
Nowhere does a new kid feel more awkward on their first day than in the cafeteria at lunchtime. Sara gets stuck listening to a guy talking about “the 2K generation,” before being rescued by the girl who fake-swiped her backpack. Her name is Chenille, and she takes Sara under her wing. And, small, small world: Chenille turns out to be the sister of the guy Sara had the debate with. Oops.
Sara tries to hide her abilities as a dancer, but a session with a balance beam during gym outs her, and Chenille and Diggy get curious. After finding out Sara was trained in ballet, they invite her to go to a club called Steps with them, which she agrees to after some coaxing. Only problem is, Sara needs a fake ID, but there’s an affable fellow named Snookie who fixes her up. All he needs is an Andrew Jackson and a “Thank you, Snookie!” and he’s on it.
“Steps ain’t no square dance,” says Chenille’s brother, whose name is Derek (and who is played by Sean Patrick Thomas).
“That’s all right,” boasts Sara. “I dance in circles, probably around you.”
Famous last words.
Sara’s first time at Steps couldn’t be more uncomfortable, and on the way home, Derek offers to help her work on her moves. They start meeting in the cafeteria, and later in an abandoned building after school, and Derek gives Sara a crash course in hip-hop. Sara, as the perfect ballerina, has to loosen up literally and figuratively, because she’s used to keeping her movement and posture smooth and graceful. As seems to be typical with dancers, though, she catches on pretty quickly. She even manages to show off a few ballet steps to Derek, and then tries to pass it off as no big deal when he’s impressed.
This sweet guy doesn’t forget, however. Derek wants to be a pediatrician, so he studies hard, which lands him admission to Georgetown University. To celebrate, he takes Sara to see the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Sara’s reluctant to go in at first, but Derek talks her into it, and she’s incredibly moved by what she sees. Later on, she spills everything to Derek about why she gave up ballet–in short, she thinks she caused her mother’s death and is racked with guilt. “What do you want?” Derek asks her. “Do you still want Juilliard?” Sara tearfully nods.
For her audition, Sara has to present one traditional piece and one contemporary, and Derek works with her on the latter because it gave her trouble the first time around. First of all, though, Sara’s gotta get back in shape before the audition, and it’s tough on her because she’s been out of the ballet scene. Derek sits in on her classes, and he can’t stop beaming–he seems to like the fact that Sara is doing something she loves, plus it allows him a glimpse into her world. The two of them debut Sara’s hip-hop moves at Steps as well, and she wows just about everyone there.
Meanwhile, Sara and Derek get pushback from their peers about their relationship. Derek’s friend, Malakai (Fredro Starr), sees Derek as a traitor because he’s dating a white girl. Kai wants Derek to ditch Sara and join him while he takes revenge on some rival gang members. Derek’s ex, Nikki (Bianca Lawson), is jealous of Sara, and a big part of it is that she sees Derek as one of the few good men around. What really hurts Sara is when Chenille says that Nikki has a point. Chenille has other issues that she’s dealing with, though–she’s a teen mom, and her son’s father is a flake. Anyway, the whole thing frustrates Sara so much that she tells Derek, “We spend more time defending our relationship than having one.”
It would be easy to say, “Ah, teen movies,” but Save the Last Dance has too much going on for that.
Everything leads up to Sara’s big Juilliard audition, and when she gets there, her contemporary piece is a pretty slammin’ mix of traditional and modern ballet with a generous twist of hip-hop. The choreography in Save the Last Dance was a joint effort between Randy Duncan and the prolific Fatima.
While this number is one of my favorite parts of Save the Last Dance, it does show up a very common problem in the musicals and dance-oriented films made nowadays: Most of today’s filmmakers don’t know how to shoot these types of scenes (For the record, I haven’t seen La La Land yet, although I’d like to. I’m hoping the producers got back to basics in that movie). In the case of Save the Last Dance, the feeling of the dance numbers was captured very effectively, but the problem is that the editing and insert shots are too quick to let us to see much of the dance itself. Dance sequences used to allow things to play out and flow so that we could get a full picture of the choreography. Save the Last Dance might show us Sara’s finger pointing, or a blurry pass over her knees, or a star closeup, but we seldom see her from head to toe for very long. Granted, Julia Stiles is being doubled in the film with a fully-trained dancer, and the line between actor and dancer is fairly seamless. Dance does better at presenting traditional ballet than hip-hop, though–the camera isn’t so jerky and frames the dances, as opposed to getting all trendy and hyper with the editing.
Aside from that, Save the Last Dance has a lot of good points. This movie is definitely not High School Musical–no mirror-like gym floors or perfect-looking classrooms. I liked that Carter seemed to use real locations for the interiors instead of shooting them on a soundstage. While it might be awkward to film around a post or over someone’s head, it does lend a lot of realism and grittiness to the movie. I also liked that it showed Derek and Sara breaking out of what they knew best, and thus growing as people. The chemistry between Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas is fun–they seemed to genuinely enjoy each other.
The story is done fairly well, and while the ending shouldn’t surprise anyone, the way the characters get there is deftly handled. It makes it clear how important choices really are–Sara could have just gone on blaming herself for her mother’s death, but she chose to get back to what she was meant to do. Derek could go with Kai on the latter’s little revenge spree, or he could make another decision. On the other hand, things like fake IDs and underage drinking are acceptable in this world, with no apparent consequences. All in all, Save the Last Dance is a mixed bag with a lot of redeeming moments.
Okay, everyone, thanks for reading, and see you all tomorrow with my review of Rear Window for Maddy’s Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon!
This film is available on Amazon.