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Save the Last Dance

Starring Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas
Screenplay by Cheryl Edwards and Duane Adler
Based on the "Chasing the Game" by Duane Adler
Directed by Thomas Carter

IN SHORT: Strictly teen dateflick. [Rated PG-13. 113 minutes]

Honestly, we do not dread sitting down for movies aimed at the teen slash twentysomething audience. We admit to detesting most rap/ hip-hop music (it's rap when done by gangstas; hip-hop when it aspires to be actual music) but have never had a problem locking that particular prejudice out when analyzing things like plot and story and performance. Reviewing Save the Last Dance presents a more difficult problem, one which almost knocked us for a loop. Technically, the film is in English. But it's not. It's in a new language called hip hop, and releasing studio Paramount provided no dictionary. We didn't know what the hell these ghetto kidlets were saying so we grabbed from context, and the plots of dozens of kidflicks that have come before, 'cuz Save the Last Dance isn't anything particularly special, at least to us. It is a perfect take on the formula that was the basis of every book my sister read as a teen. A New Kid comes to town and she's got a deeply hidden, horrible secret. She has to learn to integrate into a strange community. She finds a friend and protector to teach her the ropes. She also finds, after an initial conflict, her one true love.

We're twenty years beyond the folk that applauded at the end of this movie but we didn't find the formula to have changed all that much. Still, most of the target demo were happy with the flick -- as opposed to happy that they got to see it for free -- which means a thumbs up from the demo.

Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) is your typical introverted seventeen year old. She has a deep love for ballet and wants to go to Julliard to study. She has a loving mom whose untimely death forces her to move in with jazz musician dad Roy (Terry Kinney) on the South Side of Chicago. There, Miss Midwest Whitebread meets hip hop head on -- half a dozen white kids at Wheatley High mysteriously disappear after one scene, leaving Sara as a drop of milk in a dark saucer. (The "milk" bit is from the dialog. Don't email your wagging fingers). Befriended by street smart Chenille Reynolds (Kerry Washington), within three or four days in the hood Sara is sporting attitude and a mouth to match. Sara also finds friendship with Chenille's brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) which doesn't please his ex, Nikki (Bianca Lawson).

Derek isn't as clean cut as he appears. There's some history with a street thug dealer named Malakai (Fredro Starr) which fills the gangsta requirement, with all that entails, plus a politically correct "you can change yourself" speech. Save the Last Dance goes to great lengths to show that drive-by shootings and the like are not as commonplace as the media would make 'em seem to be and then tosses one in as a plot device 'cuz the rest of the story is fairly average. Average, in this case, wasn't all that difficult to sit through if you're a parent hiding in the back while your eleven year old is up front with their friends. Only when the movie gets "heavy," to use way out of date terminology, does it get grind to a halt. None of the actors can handle heavy emotive work and when those moments hit, it's downright painful to sit through. But then, if you're out of the MTV stage target demo, you won't be enduring.

The interesting part of the story, we note from what press materials we did get, is that writer Duane Adler's first script, "Chasing the Game" was what got him noticed by the producers of this movie. CTG was about Adler's experiences as the only white player on a black high school basketball team. Change sports to dance and voila, production deal!

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Save the Last Dance, he would have paid...


Save the Last Dance is a teen dateflick, pure and simple. Grownups who want the visceral pleasure of looking at Julia Stiles (you dirty old men you) can do so in David Mamet's State and Main, in theaters now.

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