Save the Last Dance is a surprisingly well-thought out film. Although it is primarily concerned with dance, it also deals with some big issues.
When high school student Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles), an aspiring ballet dancer, auditions for Julliard, she pushes her mother into ducking out of her busy job to come watch and support her. In her hurry, her mother drives right into a serious freeway accident and is killed. Grief-stricken, Sara gives up ballet, feeling that her mother’s death is all her fault, and moves in with her dad, a jazz trumpeter, in Chicago.
Although her new high school isn’t composed completely of African-American students, it seems to be around 95% black. On her first day, she clashes with Derek Reynolds (Sean Patrick Thomas), a very bright boy, in her English class, then she is befriended by Chenille Reynolds (Kerry Washington), Derek’s sister. Chenille is a single mother as well as a high school student, and she and Derek live with their grandmother.
Chenille sets of an evening with Sara at Stepps, a local hip-hop club, where Derek and his friend Malakai hang. However, Malakai is into dealing and drugs and puts himself into pretty dangerous situations. While Derek teaches Sara how to dance hip-hop, many of the other black kids at the school begin to resent Sara’s taking one of the most eligible black boys at the school and even Chenille is not supportive in that respect. When Derek talks Sara into doing another audition for Julliard, she begins working seriously toward that goal.
The film is immensely entertaining, not only in its exploration of the racial themes, but in its use of music and dance, employing great classical music and lots of wonderful hip-hop songs. We get to see a Joffrey Ballet performance, professional hip-hop dancing, and a mixed program where the two forms are joined together in one dance. All of the hip-hop songs are very well-chosen, including Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It,” one of my favorite hip-hop songs.
Stiles and Thomas are both wonderful in their roles and all of the supporting case is excellent, especially Washington. The direction by Thomas Carter is spot-on and the editing and cinematography are first rate. I highly recommend this movie!