If you can buy into the concept that a loving mother with a nice house in the suburbs and a current model-year Jeep wouldn't have provided for her teenage daughter in her will, you might buy into the concept of "Save the Last Dance."
It's about an aspiring ballerina named Sara (the seemingly ubiquitous Julia Stiles) whose mother dies in a car accident while rushing to make it to her daughter's Juilliard audition.
The audition and the car crash were laughably juxtaposed in the editing room for tacky melodramatic flair -- as Sara takes a spill on stage and blows her big chance, mom's car is being pummeled by an 18-wheeler.
But I digress. In the wake of her mother's devastating demise, 17-year-old Sara is apparently left with no option but to move in with her negligent father (Terry Kinney), a struggling jazz musician who lives in the ghetto of Chicago's South Side. Forced to adjust to a whole new way of life, Sara feels like an outcast in her new school (she's almost the only white kid, and the metal detectors come as a bit of a shock).
But fate is a funny thing. Here in this jarring, urban world of drive-bys and people who say "aaaight!" she meets Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), a charming, hip-hop intellectual (he wants to be a doctor and can quote Truman Capote!) with a petty criminal past, and discovers that -- to quote the press kit provided by Paramount and MTV Films -- "they share one fervent passion -- dance!"
You probably don't need me to paint the rest of the picture -- Sara rediscovering her devotion to ballet through romantic hip-hop dance lessons that free her creativity, Derek facing a tough decision when his troubled, pure-ghetto best friend wants him along on a drive-by. But while "Last Dance" is pathetically contrived and predictable, it does have a certain spark thanks to a glowing, whetted amorous chemistry between Stiles ("State and Main," "Down to You") and Thomas ("Cruel Intentions").
These two seem to really understand the nuances of their characters. Their credible, quite astute performances keep the film afloat for a while, and director Thomas Carter ("Swing Kids," "Metro") manages to touch on a few social issues without it feeling like a pat on the head or a load of politically correct crap. (One of the best scenes in the movie sees Derek's sister chewing Sara out for snatching up "one of the few good black men left after drugs, jail and drive-bys.")
Carter also builds palpable verve in the many dance scenes, even when they're just rickety plot devices. But he can't overcome the fact that the plot is ultimately more teen drama gimmick than it is an actors' showcase or a vehicle for altruistic insight.
Even the good elements of the "Last Dance" unravel in the third act, which begins with a inane, out-of-character spat between our young lovers that serves only to set up meaningless conflict that must be resolved so cymbals can crash on the soundtrack when they're reunited at Sara's second Juilliard audition -- the one Derek comes to at the last minute after choosing her and a scholarship to Georgetown over throwing his life away by covering his homies' backs during a gang dispute.
Here's a perfect example of where Carter lets the movie get sloppy: Even though Derek's best friend is a minor supporting character whose story is irrelevant, he follows along to the kid's doomed gun battle just so he can edit together the violence and the beauty of Sara's audition -- again. And in slow motion.
Then to tactlessly demonstrate Sara's success this time, he cuts to shots of the snooty arts school judges nodding along in rhythm to the down-wit-it soul music she's dancing to.
Give it a rest, buddy.
"Save the Last Dance" does a fairly good job avoiding stereotype pratfalls and there's plenty of evidence that Carter is capable of rising above the material (the cinematography, the nuanced performances). Had he tried a little harder to overcome the picture's conventions, it might have been something more than just another MTV-produced teenage romance.