As one might expect from a film credited as an "MTV production," "Save the Last Dance" is one-half realistic portrayal of youth, and one-half pure cinematic pablum. It is the former half that earns the film some degree of respect, but the latter half that made it a box-office hit -- especially with girls, who are always glad to have a strong heroine their age.
(The fact that the heroine drinks, has sex, and uses a fake ID to get into a nightclub, all without repercussions, might make those girls' parents a little uneasy, but that's another matter.)
This is a serious-minded movie starring the serious-minded Julia Stiles. I've always thought Stiles seems too dour and humorless to lead a film, but here her melancholy is somewhat justified. She plays Sara Johnson, who grew up dancing ballet and was in the middle of auditioning for Juilliard when her mother, rushing to get to the audition on time, was killed in a car accident. Sara vowed not to dance again.
Now Sara has come to Chicago to live with her musician father Roy (Terry Kinney) in his sub-standard little apartment. She goes to Phyllis Wheatley High School, where she is one of approximately three white girls amid a sea of African-Americans. This is a movie-land school where they have metal detectors -- ya know, 'cause inner-city schools are scary -- but no actual crimes or threatening behavior beyond the typical high school rivalries.
And I do mean typical: Every relationship in this film has been done before, and it's all done pretty efficiently, with no extra characters. Bad girl Nikki (Biance Lawson) isn't just angry because Sara's white in an all-black school; she's also jealous because her ex-boyfriend Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) is sweet on Sara. Nikki, therefore, serves as both Mean-Spirited Villain AND Stupid Racist. Derek's friend Malakai (Fredro Starr) is the Vicious Drug-Dealer AND The Opposite, whose poor decisions serve as a contrast to people like Derek, who are trying to rise above their dismal surroundings and make something of themselves. Derek's sister Chenille (Kerry Washington) acts as the Best Friend and the Sadder-But-Wiser Girl (she has a baby who was fathered by a deadbeat). Eight or nine stock characters, all rolled into three or four people!
The dour Sara gets off on the wrong foot with Derek but quickly becomes friends with him, and then lovers. (Their sex scene, by the way, is one of the film's more absurdly unrealistic moments. It's not graphic or anything, but it's filmed so tenderly and maturely, as if what they're doing is a totally fantastic idea, even though they're both so young and not entirely in love yet. Real-life teen-age sex situations are, I believe, a bit less romantic than this one. But a scene taking place in the backseat of a car and lasting five minutes from start to finish probably wouldn't get the audience a-cooing like this one does.)
Derek, meanwhile, is trying to get away from his bad-boy past and into college. Malakai is pulling him the other way, though, and that darned Nikki is awfully pesky, too.
Oh, yeah, and there's some dancing. Despite the title, the film is not really "about" dancing. It's about finding your potential and overcoming bad circumstances. In fact, the dancing is when the movie falls the flattest. Sara's obligatory Juilliard re-audition is melodramatic as all get out, culminating in a judge telling her, "I can't say this on the record yet, but welcome to Juilliard." All that's missing is a guy walking in suddenly to announce Derek has won the lottery. (Sara has already had a rote reconciliation with her dad, of course.)
But there is some realism, too. Chenille's motherhood is handled quite well, better than most films of this ilk would handle such an issue. The dialogue and general demeanor among the teens rings true, too. And I was glad to see the inter-racial relationship dealt with only as much as necessary (there's a funny scene on a train in which Sara and Derek put on a show for a white woman who is scowling at them). Chenille voices thought-provoking concerns that Sara the white girl -- who could have any number of decent white men -- is taking one of the few respectable black men out of circulation, leaving the black girls with nothing but scrubs.
For all its eye-rolling triteness, "Save the Last Dance" is often more intelligent than it should be. Which is better than a lot of movies that pass themselves off as teen films.
This is the "Special Collector's Edition" of the movie, released in October 2006. The film was previously released as a non-special non-collector's edition in 2001. The differences between the two will be addressed later.
There are optional English subtitles and an alternate French sound track.
VIDEO: The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is very good, with just a little edge enhancement and no major blemishes in the print.
AUDIO: The English track is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0. Both are excellent, with the film's abundant music well-balanced with the dialogue, everything crisp and clear.
EXTRAS: The 2001 DVD release for this film had extras, too, and this new "Special Collector's Edition" merely repeats them and adds a couple more. The holdovers are as follows:
- Commentary by director Thomas Carter. How is it? Meh. Carter is a good speaker, but he doesn't tell any particularly fascinating anecdotes or offer any extraordinary insights. It's mostly a play-by-play with a little discussion about the specifics of making a movie. He does mention a lot of scenes that were cut out. So where are they?
- "The Making of 'Save the Last Dance'" featurette (19:35). Like most "making of" featurettes, this one actually has very little to do with the making of the movie. It's mostly cast members talking about their characters and explaining, in case we're really stupid, what happens in the film. There's actually more about the making of the K-Ci & JoJo music video. Speaking of which...
- "Crazy" (4:06), a music video by K-Ci & JoJo. It has scenes from the film interspersed with the usual music video shenanigans.
- "'Save the Last Dance': A Retrospective" (12:33). I don't know why it's called a "retrospective" when it was made immediately after the movie wrapped. ("Remember that stuff that happened two weeks ago? Ah, nostalgia!") It's hard to distinguish this from the "making of" doc, as both feature cast and crew talking about their characters and the movie's themes.
- Deleted scenes. Now, the 2001 disc had four of them, but only two are on the new disc. They total about 5 1/2 minutes and are interesting enough but certainly didn't harm the film any by being cut.
(The 2001 disc also had the film's theatrical trailer, which is absent from the new one.)
So what's new on this disc? Here's what:
- "The Writers' Story" (13:28), a dull featurette in which the two writers talk about the script's evolution. Yawn.
- "In Step: The Choreographers' Story" (6:01), in which we get one surprising revelation: lily-white Julia Stiles had more natural talent for hip-hop dancing than African-American Sean Patrick Thomas did. Take THAT, racial stereotypers!
- "What It Takes" (5:49) takes us on a tour of the Chicago Academy for the Arts, where the film was shot. We meet real students and instructors and learn what the place is all about. Interesting enough.
- A featurette about "Save the Last Dance 2" AND the trailer for "Save the Last Dance 2"!!!!! OMG!!! "Save the Last Dance 2" is a direct-to-DVD sequel starring none of the original cast, by the way. And now you know why the "Special Collector's Edition" of the first film exists at all: to promote the sequel.
Even after only five years the film already seems dated -- the peril, I suppose, of making a youth-culture movie when youth culture changes so fast. So it's no classic, but it's worth a rental if the premise appeals to you.
If you already own the movie, should you upgrade? I'm not able to compare the audio and video of the two versions of the movie, but I note that both are anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, so I'm guessing the new version is identical to the old one.
That being the case, the only reason you'd upgrade is if the extras are better, and they really aren't. All that's new are a couple of minor featurettes, and in fact the 2001 DVD release had more deleted scenes than the "Special Collector's Edition" does. I vote no on the upgrade.
(Note: Most of the "movie review" portion of this article comes from the review I wrote when the movie was released theatrically. I have re-watched it in the course of reviewing the DVD, however.)