Save the Last Dance

As one might expect from a film credited as an “MTV production,” “Save the Last Dance” is one-half realistic portrayal of youth, and one-half pure cinematic pablum. It is the former half that earns the film some degree of respect, but the latter half that will bring in the teen-agers — especially the girls, who will be glad to have a strong heroine their age.

And I’m all for giving girls a role model. But couldn’t it be one who doesn’t have sex, doesn’t get into a nightclub using a fake ID, and doesn’t drink? The fact that Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles), the protagonist of “Save the Last Dance,” does all those things without repercussions of any kind is not at all encouraging.

Moral issues aside, this is a serious-minded movie led by a serious-minded Julia Stiles. This is a girl who needs to lighten up and be a little more friendly if she’s going to be in charge of an entire film, but perhaps her melancholy is justified. See, Sara grew up dancing ballet and was in the middle of auditioning for Juilliard when her mother, rushing to get to the audition on time, was killed in a car accident. Sara vowed not to dance again.

Now Sara has come to Chicago to live with her musician father Roy (Terry Kinney) in his sub-standard little apartment. She goes to Phyllis Wheatley High School, where she is one of approximately three white girls amid a sea of African-Americans. This is a movie-land school where they have metal detectors — ya know, ’cause inner-city schools are scary — but no actual crimes or threatening behavior beyond the typical high school rivalries.

And I do mean typical: Every relationship in this film has been done before, and it’s all done pretty efficiently, with no extra characters. Bad girl Nikki (Biance Lawson) isn’t just angry because Sara’s white in an all-black school; she’s also jealous because her ex-boyfriend Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) is sweet on Sara. Nikki, therefore, serves as both Mean-Spirited Villain AND Stupid Racist. Derek’s friend Malakai (Fredro Starr) is the Vicious Drug-Dealer AND The Opposite, whose poor decisions serve as a contrast to people like Derek, who are trying to rise above their dismal surroundings and make something of themselves. Derek’s sister Chenille (Kerry Washington) acts as the Best Friend and the Sadder-But-Wiser Girl (she has a baby who was fathered by a deadbeat). Eight or nine stock characters, all rolled into three or four people!

The dour Sara gets off on the wrong foot with Derek but quickly becomes friends with him, and then lovers. (Their sex scene, by the way, is one of the film’s more absurdly unrealistic moments. It’s not graphic or anything, but it’s filmed so tenderly and maturely, as if what they’re doing is a totally fantastic idea, even though they’re both so young and not entirely in love yet. Real-life teen-age sex situations are, I believe, a bit less romantic than this one. But a scene taking place in the backseat of a car and lasting five minutes from start to finish probably wouldn’t get the audience a-cooing like this one does.)

Derek, meanwhile, is trying to get away from his bad-boy past and into college. Malakai is pulling him the other way, though, and that darned Nikki is awfully pesky, too.

Oh, yeah, and there’s some dancing. Despite the title, the film is not really “about” dancing. It’s about finding your potential and overcoming bad circumstances. In fact, the dancing is when the movie falls the flattest. Sara’s obligatory Juilliard re-audition is melodramatic as all get out, culminating in a judge telling her, “I can’t say this on the record yet, but welcome to Juilliard.” All that’s missing is a guy walking in suddenly to announce Derek has won the lottery. (Sara has already had a rote reconciliation with her dad, of course.)

But there is some realism, too. Chenille’s motherhood is handled quite well, better than most films of this ilk would handle such an issue. The dialogue and general demeanor among the teens rings true, too. And I was glad to see the inter-racial relationship dealt with only as much as necessary (there’s a funny scene on a train in which Sara and Derek put on a show for a white woman who is scowling at them). Chenille voices thought-provoking concerns that Sara the white girl — who could have any number of decent white men — is taking one of the few respectable black men out of circulation, leaving the black girls with nothing but scrubs.

For all its eye-rolling triteness, “Save the Last Dance” is often more intelligent than it should be. Which is better than a lot of movies that pass themselves off as teen films.

C+ (; PG-13, heavy profanity, mild sexuality, some violence.)