Save the Last Dance saves its first dance too long in favor of a ponderous setup: Ballet dancer Sara (Julia Stiles) gives up her dream after Mom dies in a car wreck en route to her daughter’s Juilliard audition (sobbing violins bid her adieu, deathlessly). Sara moves from suburbia to southside Chicago, where she must install herself in both her ne’er-do-well dad’s ratty apartment and a new high school with scarcely another white face in sight. She bonds with fellow smartass brainiac Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), trading English-class ripostes about Truman Capote and sharing a charmingly awkward Swayze-Grey pas de deux in a teeming club (actually, much of the movie cops from Flashdance, down to the bad body-doubling for the trickier steps). The hesitant development of this rather touchingly fraternal interracial romance, hinging on Derek’s oddly obsessive efforts to instruct Sara in the best hip-hop moves, leaves the boy’s associates in varying states of unease: his sister Chenille (Kerry Washington), a bighearted young mom; his ex Nikki (Bianca Lawson), a glowering ghettofab skank; his best friend, Malakai (Fredro Starr), a fatalist thug who beats some poor sap to a bloody pulp while sporting a Sean John sweatshirt, hmm.
The disjointed plotting and afterschool-special dialogue offer scant opportunity for the charismatic leading duo to work up much chemistry, and Derek’s pro bono services as sorrowful Sara’s whip-cracking dance teacher bear some relation to the custom of casting black actors as single-minded spiritual guides for lost white souls. Despite hastily sketched Derek-Malakai face-offs and admirably ambivalent gestures toward knotty issues racial, Save the Last Dance above all asks whether its heroine Can Dance Ballet Again. If the answer is foregone, it’s at least delivered with guiltless melodramatic panache.