Given the role black music and style plays in youth culture, it's not surprising that many recent youth-oriented films have dealt extensively with race relations, from the cheerleader comedy Bring It On to the kidnapping saga Light It Up to James Toback's ambitious drama Black And White. The results have been well-intentioned but misguided at best (Bring It On) and inept and unwatchable at worst (Light It Up), perhaps because all three films were directed by white men who portrayed race as a matter of social concern rather than a day-to-day reality. Save The Last Dance, on the other hand, was directed by black filmmaker Thomas Carter, which may be why its attitude toward race and race relations feels far more sensitive and ambiguous than those of its cinematic peers. An interracial romance of surprising depth and insight, Save The Last Dance stars the terrific Julia Stiles as an aspiring ballerina who puts her dreams of dancing on hold after her mother's sudden death. Sent to live in a predominantly black neighborhood with her good-hearted but ill-equipped musician father (Terry Kinney), Stiles at first has trouble fitting in, but finds love and acceptance in the form of Sean Patrick Thomas, a whip-smart overachiever with a troubled past. A pair of subplots involving Thomas' friendship with an explosive small-time hood (Fredro Starr) and Stiles' return to ballet threaten to turn the film into an overreaching kitchen-sink drama, but Carter's sure-handed direction keeps it focused on the surprisingly multi-layered and compelling relationship between its leads. Stiles excels in what's easily her best role since her breakthrough turn in 10 Things I Hate About You, while Thomas more than holds his own, creating a character who's smart and likable but also prickly and combative. Save The Last Dance is particularly perceptive about the ways people in difficult situations create mental body armor just to survive, how they suppress their vulnerability to avoid being swallowed up by their surroundings. The film belongs to Stiles and Thomas, but it's full of sharp supporting performances, most notably from Kinney and Kerry Washington as Thomas' skeptical sister. Though far from perfect—the dance aspects are far clumsier and more predictable than the central romance—a fine cast and Carter's perceptive direction make Save The Last Dance the rare teen film in which substance far outstrips style.
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