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09 December 2005

Save the Last Dance (2001)

Julia Stiles (Sara Johnson) and Sean Patrick Thomas (Derek Reynolds)

Directed by Thomas Carter (Swing Kids)

From Hollywood Video: "When her mother dies in a car accident, a teenage ballerina moves to the south side of Chicago to live with her father. She has trouble fitting in until she meets a young man who loves to dance."

This was a surprisingly good, if occasionally heavy-handed, film about the difficulties of race, love, expectations, responsibility, friendship, and the fragility of identity. Julia Stiles played a quirky blend of Brady Bunch cute and smart adaptability, as her character, Sara, moved from the secure world of white faces, unconditional love, and ballet to the south side of Chicago, after her mom's death. There, she meets Chenille (Kerry Washington) and her brother Derek, played by the very charismatic and genuine Sean Patrick Thomas, and her world becomes a little more colorful - literally - and more rewarding.

The chemistry between Stiles and Thomas was easy and believable. He has a fantastic smile and a very sincere, intelligent presence, standing apart from the crowd. Aside from the obligatory "scene of romantic misunderstanding," they were a duo, a pair - two people with confidence, ambition and dreams who would take on all comers. Stiles also demonstrated the goof-ball, self-deprecating comic timing found in Ten Things I Hate About You, even as she expanded on the funky, sexy dance moves she only hinted at in that film. Many of the dance scenes were spliced with professionals, but her attitude, grace and classical training made for convincing performances. The only exception was, of course, when it came time for Sara to try "dancing to hip-hop" for the first time and found her feet and hips woefully, pitifully white. Silly! I know that girl has no problem with rhythm.

The movie was solid, entertaining and surprising for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which was that any all-teen cast about kids takin' on the world has to be met with suspicion - unless you happen to be a teenager. However, the script was authentic in its examination of multiple sides of very complex issues. A father abandons his daughter and her mother in order to pursue his music career. Years later, how can they get create a new relationship when they have no choice but to make it work? A young man owes his best friend a debt that cannot be repaid. How can he set aside that friendship when it becomes a threatening barrier to his future? Relationships are the heart of this film, not necessarily the cheesier "follow your dreams" angle (although that features prominently).

So he's going to Georgetown and she's going to Juilliard. Too bad. They'd have made a really nice couple. But - and here is the most surprising part - this silly, cute, feel-good melodrama made me glad that these two improbable but fiercely likeable characters found each other for a little while.

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