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SAVE THE LAST DANCE

SYNOPSIS:
Sara (Julia Stiles) is a white, suburban teen with a passion and talent for ballet. Suddenly, the death of her mother turns her world upside down. She fails an audition for Julliard, and is forced to move in with her father, Roy (Terry Kinney), a struggling musician who abandoned Sara and her mother, and lives in a poor and predominantly black neigbourhood of Chicago. Sara is a little intimidated by the culture shock, but fascinated by the attentions of one of her black schoolmates Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas). He is smart, chic, respected by his peers and a talented hip-hop dancer. Derek is well on his way to getting into medical school, but his friendships from the neighbourhood, particularly with the dangerous Malakai (Fredro Starr) threaten his future. Sara is a willing initiate into these new rhythms and sensibilities, but Derek soon realises that she is also haunted by the past – and despite having given up dance, she still yearns to study at the nation’s most prestigious dance school - Julliard.

"As original as the foxtrot and as profound as a Janet Jackson video clip, this film is also immensely watchable and likeable. Following in the twinkle-toed steps of Centre Stage and Billy Elliott, it’s a revival of the dance-your-dream genre; a fashionable formula of the 70s/80s involving lots of pirouetting bodies, few narrative twists and characters whose principal attribute involved the four-letter F-word: ‘feet’. Indeed, f-words were once obligatory titles for these feet-ures: Fame, Flashdance, Footloose. Unlike Centre Stage which boasted an ensemble of incredible dancers delivering incredulous dramatic performances, the focus here is on the prima-protagonist, with Stiles playing the cultural ingenue with impressive rawness and integrity but requiring dizzying camera angles, a chair-prop homage to Flashdance and, I suspect, a dance-double (or triple) to pull off the inevitable hot-hoofing finale. The most appealing aspect of her performance is the realistic edge of insecurity, tempered by youthful self-confidence, she displays when thrust into the alien milieu of her new school and new society. Small, quiet triumphs are the winning, feel-good moments of the film; outweighing the anti-climactic and clichéd ending, in which she squashes the attitude of the aloof, proud prunes serving as audition judges. The vicissitudes of the relationship between Sara and her father – with Kinney a wonderful composite of regret, affability and irresponsibility – outshine a tendency towards melodrama in the romantic scenes with Thomas. Although predictable, the story is engagingly told and consistently entertaining even when it teeters toward the passe . . . or pas seul. I enjoyed this film as much as any of its ilk, and there’s the added bonus of a free lesson in how to slouch in a chair with a hip-hop attitude. Now if only I could learn to hold that pose while typing . . ."
Brad Green

"On the face of it, there’s little new about Save the Last Dance. It features an inter-racial relationship (nothing very novel about that since Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), ballet (a favoured plot vehicle from the last 12 months) and relationship problems (as you’d expect). But this gentle and at times compelling little film manages to pull off the mix with surprisingly effective results. The relationship between Sara and Derek is nicely constructed and I, for one, bought it completely. It also has some insightful things to say about the state of race relations in America; even if the way these are presented is rather obtuse at times. The dance aspect is secondary; and actually merges into the story successfully, rather than being a clumsy plot device. The music by the very talented Mark Isham is also a plus, even if many of the hip-hop songs are toned down. The exercise isn’t entirely successful however, with a few scenes – particularly towards the end – failing to ring true; and the occasional lapse into cliché. Julia Stiles is terrific in the lead role, giving Sara an inner toughness with a touching vulnerability. Sean Patrick Thomas is also great, as are most of the supporting cast. I was particularly taken, however, with Terry Kinney as Sara’s father. In a difficult role, he manages to convey just the right blend of bewilderment and genuine affection. While there are a few things wrong with Save the Last Dance, there are plenty of things right with it. OK, it doesn’t break any fresh ground, but it’s a strong story with generally believable characters and sensitive plotting. Not an Oscar movie, but worth a look just the same."
David Edwards

"Interracial romance is a subject Hollywood usually strains to avoid, so I suppose Save The Last Dance gets a couple of points for redeeming social value, even if its approach is nervously self-conscious. 'We spend more time defending our relationship than we do having it,' comments Sara at one point, and this is all too true: it takes half the movie before she and Derek even kiss. Nor do the stars work up much chemistry: Sean Patrick Thomas is constrained by having to play the ideal black boyfriend - smart, funky, levelheaded - while Julia Stiles projects a stiff uncertainty that doesn't always seem like acting. In the scene where Sara and Derek temporarily break up, both the dialogue and the performances are so half-hearted you hardly believe the two of them could be a couple in the first place: 'It's nothing personal,' she tells him lamely, after saying she doesn't want to be seen with him in public. Perhaps to distract attention from the weakness of its central relationship, the film is cluttered with any number of corny subplots: past traumas, jealous rivals, false friends. Almost certainly the film would have worked better if it had cut out some of this material and concentrated on the possibilities expressed in its title of dramatising its conflicts in terms of music and dance. There are numerous missed opportunities here. For example, Sara's father is established as a seedy jazz musician - placing him culturally midway between Sean's hiphop and Sara's classical ballet - but nothing comes of this; we never even get to see him perform. Still, some of the dance scenes work well. When Sara visits a hip-hop club with her newly acquired friends, it's a comic nightmare about being culturally out of your depth: the one white girl in a sea of black dancers, she gamely but nervously shuffles from side to side, trying in vain to keep her cool."
Jake Wilson

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 2
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 1

SOUNDTRACK REVIEW

SAVE THE LAST DANCE (M)
(US)

CAST: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry Washington, Fredro Starr

PRODUCER: Robert W. Cort, David Madden

DIRECTOR: Thomas Carter

SCRIPT: Duane Adler (story and screenplay), Cheryl Edwards

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robbie Greenberg

EDITOR: Peter E. Berger

MUSIC: Mark Isham

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Paul Eads

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: UIP

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 5, 2001

VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount

VIDEO RELEASE: October 5, 2006







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