To their credit, novice screenwriters Duane Adler (who was the only white player on his high school basketball team) and Cheryl Edwards show no fear of the complexities of skin color or the pitfalls of being 17. They probably haven't heard H.L. Mencken's dictum "Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence," and they likely are innocent of Brecht's sour observation: "Boy meets girl, so what?" So they press bravely forward with the story of Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) and Derek Reynolds (Sean Patrick Thomas), a couple of smart, appealing kids with the guts to care for each other in the face of many obstacles. You can't help closing one eye to American reality and rooting for them.
When first we see Sara, she's a budding blonde ballerina from the suburbs with her sights set on Juilliard. But her mom is suddenly killed in a car wreck -- en route to Sara's audition, no less. Understandably, this dims the fresh-faced heroine's glowing view of life. It also dictates that she now go live with Dad (Terry Kinney), a scruffy jazz musician whose apartment on Chicago's south side looks like it was furnished by garbage collectors. Part white hipster, part bum, good old Roy Johnson hasn't paid the least attention to his daughter since he and his trumpet case lit out from home years earlier. His first parental instinct is to show Sara the freezer full of TV dinners; his second is to dispatch her to nearby Wheatley High School, where she will be one of a handful of white students.
Almost immediately, Dance gains emotional momentum. At Wheatley, the students must pass through metal detectors on their way to class, and Sara must pass muster with her new classmates. That involves taking what amounts to a citizenship course for entry into the Hip-Hop Nation. A teenage single mother named Chenille Reynolds (Kerry Washington) gives Sara valuable tips about the local argot (it's "slammin'," not "cool") and manner of dress (lose the chunky suburban boots). Cheerful Chenille also tows her new charge off to the neighborhood dance club, Steps, which is like an African-American version of John Travolta's hangout in Saturday Night Fever -- a social vortex and a house of fantasies. Sara, of course, has never seen anything like it. She's got her pas de deux down cold, but when it comes to bustin' moves, she may as well be from a different planet.
Enter Derek Reynolds, Chenille's ambitious, brooding brother.
The press notes for Save the Last Dance, which is the latest product from fledgling MTV Films, say the company seeks to "speak to audiences about subjects that resonate with the MTV demographic." Well, resonate your little butts off, kids. To the usual array of teen-movie traumas (school, parents, drugs, sex, wardrobe, etc.) these filmmakers add an even more outsized demon -- race. And if that doesn't nail just about the entire "MTV demographic," what would?
After getting past initial shyness and friction, Sara and Derek start doing a kind of West Side Story-meets-Dirty Dancing number, with the boy teaching the girl his best dance moves while she blends them with her classical training. Neither Thomas (a regular on CBS' The District) nor Stiles (late of Hamlet and State and Main) is the most thrilling dancer ever captured on film, but the physical interplay here can be very touching -- not least for the inherent message that diversity is enriching. It doesn't hurt that the gifted choreographer Fatima designed the dances or that the musicians on the soundtrack include such current icons as K-Ci and Jojo, Soulbone and Kevon Edmonds. In an overheated atmosphere like this one, how long can it be until dance morphs into romance?
The Opposition includes Derek's ex-girlfriend, Nikki (Bianca Lawson), who picks a fight with Sara in the school gym, and his best friend, Malakai (rapper and actor Fredro Starr), who accuses Derek of "snowflakin'" and further states his case straight out to the intruder: "You're milk," he tells her. "Ain't no point tryin' to mix." As for those disapproving glares from white women on the el train, what's an interracial couple to expect?
The Montagues and the Capulets had similar problems. So did the Jets and the Sharks. But they weren't in hot pursuit of the "MTV demographic." Director Carter (best known for producing the outstanding HBO film Don King: Only in America) is, though, and that may be why he declines to kill anyone off. Instead, he and his brace of screenwriters manufacture some hard-won joy. Sara overcomes guilt stemming from her mother's death, renews her Juilliard quest and learns to love Dad while absorbing a new culture. Derek makes peace with himself, falls in love and keeps his eye on medical school. As for the durability of their fragile relationship, who knows? In this pleasing (if overly sunny) fairy tale, the journey is more important than the destination. Damn the skeptics, it says here, dance on.