One benign sign we’re living in the 1980s all over again: Clean and conservative Fame, Flashdance, Footloose, and Dirty Dancing-style teenage sexuality is back, at least among the young people grooving in Save the Last Dance. One less benign sign of these retro times: This wan, formulaic teen movie from Metro director Thomas Carter is afraid to pump up the volume on its own interracial, hip-hop Romeo and Juliet story, lest it challenge even one sedated viewer or disturb the peace.
Juliet in this case is Sara (Julia Stiles), a student ballerina who puts away her dream of attending Juilliard when her mother dies. Taken in by her estranged father (Terry Kinney), a jazz musician living on Chicago’s South Side, a gloomy Sara enters a high school where her flaxen, waxen ways set her apart from her predominantly black classmates. Nevertheless, it’s not long before she’s rocking out at a hot club with her cool new best school friend, Chenille (Kerry Washington) — an unwed mother with a flair for fashion — and developing a romantic relationship with Chenille’s smart, handsome, athletic, gifted, sensitive poster-boy brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), who teaches the white chick some funky floor moves. (At least he teaches someone‘s feet some steps: The phlegmatic Stiles’ above-the-waist stolidity seems to bear no relationship to the anonymous guest legs working hard down below.)
Save the Last Dance teaches that you should never give up on your dreams and that love is all you need, two falsehoods driven home by a thumpy soundtrack. Serious issues facing a black man involved with a white woman are discussed and apparently solved in record time, while any serious acknowledgment that Stiles/Sara really doesn’t have the talent for Juilliard is ignored by the stuntwoman in toe shoes. C-