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A Lively 'Last Dance'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2001


    'Save the Last Dance' From right: Julia Stiles and D.C. native Sean Patrick Thomas star in "Save the Last Dance."
In "Save the Last Dance," a hip-hop-flavored "Dirty Dancing" of sorts, two people of different hues and views come together through dance: Sara (Julia Stiles), a white, middle-class, small-town girl who dreams of a ballet career, and Derek (Sean Partick Thomas), an African American from inner-city Chicago with all the dance-floor moves, who's waiting for that acceptance letter from Georgetown University.

If "Last Dance" follows the dance-romance rules too obviously, it also puts a new twist on the old routine. Director Thomas Carter really delves into African American youth culture. This is a spirited, dirty dance between the polished inauthenticity of Hollywood romance-musicals and hip-hop's central tenet: keeping it real. It's an intriguing combination, if nothing else.

When her mother dies in a car accident, Sara is forced to leave the suburbs to live with her estranged father, Roy (Terry Kinney), downtown. He's real downtown, real Southside, this cat of a dad. Plays trumpet late into the night for a jazz combo, never washes his hair, has no idea how to deal with his prodigal daughter.

Sara, who can't bear the thought of continuing ballet -- since Mom was on her way to Sara's big audition when she died -- is very much on her own.

Sara's new school is predominantly black and students are searched for weapons upon entering the front door. But she soon gets chummy with Chenille (Kerry Washington), who introduces Sara to her social circle, teaches her how to look "slammin' " in clothes and gets her a fake ID for Stepps, a dance club where the only no-no is dancing white.

It turns out Chenille is the sister of Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), the opinionated student Sara locked horns with during English class. Oops. At Stepps, Derek, a beatific, self-assured prince of a fellow, challenges Sara to show her stuff on the dance floor. Of course, Sara, whose ballet training is useless here, makes a fool of herself amid the flailing arms and heaving torsos, and a Southside Story is born.

Between the cliches -- and there are so many, it would take several, extremely dull film-school papers to list them all -- the movie does have a spark. Director Carter seems to be trying to make this movie bust loose, and the cast seems to be in on the game. It's as though everyone is well aware of the cheese factor -- this movie's about as credible as a Benetton commercial -- but wants to give it everything they've got, regardless.

Stiles, whose dancing is obviously intercut with a superior stunt performer, is an appealing presence. She has to gamely look stupid for a long time (in dress, dance and slanguage) before she becomes more assertive.

As Chenille, an extremely savvy student who steers a proud course between single motherhood and having a good life, Washington is a thoroughly appealing performer. And rap artist Fredro Starr puts a few grace notes into Malakai, Derek's somewhat cliched friend, who's doomed to a life of street crime. But Thomas is the movie's best element. He puts so much authority in his performance, he makes this controversial romance seem like the best thing that could happen to anyone. That's no easy task.

SAVE THE LAST DANCE (PG-13, 113 minutes) -- Contains gun violence, sexual situations and obscenity.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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