Teen dramas are among the most predictable of genres, so don't be surprised if you work out the entire plot of Save The Last Dance within the opening 10 minutes. Director Thomas Carter (Swing Kids, Metro) isn't trying anything new, yet while he sticks firmly to conventions, he does at least give his young and likeable cast free reign to spice things up with some appropriately messy emotionalism and sweeten it with plenty of carefree wit.
Julia Stiles' brooding, caustic Sara - - a variation on the depressive, sharp-tongued girls she's made a career out of so far - - finds that, despite her pale skin and crisp, Gap wardrobe, she can still get by at her new, nearly all-black high school in Chicago. That's because she can dish out a quick-witted insult just as fast as mouthy classmate Chenille (Kerry Washington). But when she falls in love with Derek (charmingly and forcefully played by Sean Patrick Thomas), their relationship becomes an excuse for abuse from their friends.
The issue of black women feeling betrayed by white-dating black men is given heartfelt expression here, and while the love-conquers-all vibe is dominant, you've got to admire the movie's bravery for airing such rarely heard grievances. Which is why it's such a shame that the dance scenes aren't handled with equal care: frankly, they're ludicrous. Stiles ain't exactly a natural-born pirouetter and some choppy editing has been utilised to splice her upper half with the more proficient footwork of a body double, meaning we can't properly appreciate how Sara's reintroduction to dance is a balm for her wounded spirits.
Yet this isn't enough to ruin the whole movie. Save The Last Dance is rescued by some smart performances and pulls off the rare trick of tackling some thorny racial issues without becoming blandly moralistic.