- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2001

''Save the Last Dance" never is quite fish or fowl while aspiring to be several things to hard-to-reconcile constituencies. It attempts to be a family tear-jerker, topical crime thriller, bittersweet interracial heartwarmer and urban teen update on the wish-fulfillment exaggerations that made "Flashdance" a hit 20 years ago.

"Last Dance" also straddles dance idioms. It shuttles between classical ballet and high school hip-hop without adequately sustaining either as a pictorial and lyrical enhancement.

The plot twists itself into traumatic and tendentious snags to set the stage for dance conflict and contrast. In the opening sequence, heroine Sara (Julia Stiles), an aspiring ballerina from the Chicago suburbs, botches her audition at the Juilliard School. Even worse, her mother suffers a fatal car accident on the way to watch her.

White Sara enrolls at a predominantly black high school on Chicago's South Side after her mother's death. She has moved in with her father (Terry Kinney), also white, who is rather hazily identified as a jazz musician.

Sara proves a spunky fish out of water at her new school. Initially concealed, her dance aptitude begins to resurface in gym classes and during trips to a local dance club. Befriended by a classmate called Chenille (Kerry Washington), who has a little boy out of wedlock, Sara also is drawn to Chenille's honor-student brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), who has his sights set on medical school at Georgetown University.

Pediatrics is his avowed preference, but Derek finds time for spontaneous vocational and romantic therapy when Sara enters the picture. They fall in love, and Derek goes out of his way to encourage a renewal of ballet aspiration in Sara.

The high school sweethearts must weather racial prejudice, but given the setting, most of the resistance is found in Derek's black classmates. It comes notably from a former girlfriend named Nikki (Bianca Lawson), who considers herself a man-killer, and a childhood pal called Malakai (rapper Fredro Starr), who has drifted into criminal jeopardy. Even the initially solicitous Chenille begins to act resentful.

The story is contrived for an upbeat resolution despite the losses and hurt feelings. Sara takes some of her new hip-hop moves into a second Juilliard audition that seals the "Flashdance" influence. As a result, the racially portentous and provocative elements are bound to seem heavy-handed.

To think that Sara would be a plausible adornment to her new school is a stretch. Director Thomas Carter also tends to lose contact with an invigorating school environment, simulated at a couple of actual Chicago high schools, after the love story becomes the filmmakers' pet project.

"Save the Last Dance" might make more sense as the starting point for a miniseries devoted to several precocious or intriguing young people at an urban high school — or cleverly contrasted high schools. In a serial format, the parallel subplots would not have to compete for prominence within feature length. There would be growing room for everybody if the pretext were well-managed.

Mr. Carter made an auspicious directing debut almost a decade ago with "Swing Kids," which did have an effectively concentrated group of young characters and a unique dance theme — the passion for swing music among certain German teen-agers in Hamburg on the eve of World War II. Poorly marketed by Disney, the film never found a theatrical public.

When a quality movie fails, for whatever reason, it's discouraging. Mr. Carter hasn't found a comparably evocative subject or eloquent script since "Swing Kids," but "Last Dance" suggests that he's searching in promising places: fables about gallant and aspiring young people who need to express themselves in dance movement of one kind or another.

Ultimately, "Last Dance" is too diffuse and doting for its own good, but something consistently stirring may be found by further exploration down this avenue.{*}1/2WHAT: "Save the Last Dance"RATING: PG-13 (occasional profanity and violent undercurrents; occasional sexual candor, revolving around an interracial high school romance; some racial epithets and subplots dealing with racial prejudice and animosity)CREDITS: Directed by Thomas Carter. Screenplay by Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards. Cinematography by Robbie Greenberg. Production design by Paul Eads. Costume design by Sandra Hernandez. Choreography by Randy Duncan (ballet) and Fatima (hip-hop). Music by Mark Isham.RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes


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