Childhood favorites revisited: Save the Last Dance

Save the Last Dance (2001) was one of the films that started the “dance film” craze of the new millennium, following in the ’80s footsteps of Footloose (1984) and Dirty Dancing (1987).

Opening on the holiday weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. day and raking in over $130,000,000 during its run (over $25,000,000 of which was made on opening weekend), there’s no question as to why the studios wanted to replicate the film’s success: it was the largest opening ever for that particular weekend of the year.

Our collective attention now seems to be turned toward stories about singers (thanks a lot, Glee), but the “dance film” genre did have enough of a millennial revival to get its own awful, feature-length parody film in 2009.

(Image: toutlecine)
(Image: toutlecine)

I was nine years old, about half a year away from turning 10 when this film was released in January of 2001. I can’t remember exactly what attracted me to it or why I loved it so much, but I owned it on VHS. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I always wanted but was never able to take dance classes.

Whatever the reason, it was a frequent re-watch for my sister and I. (If there’s one thing I’m learning from this Childhood Favorites Revisited series, it’s that my sister and I clearly had Oscar-caliber taste in films.)

The film follows Sara (Julia Stiles), a ballet dancer who is forced to move from the ‘burbs to Chicago to live with her dad after her mom passes away. Relations are strained between father and daughter, who have never had much of a relationship.

Sara starts up at her new high school, which she finds is nothing like she’s used to because she is one of little more than a handful of white students who go there.

Though out of her usual cheery, suburban environment, Sara has no trouble quickly making a friend (Chenille, portrayed by Kerry Washington) and eventually falling for that friend’s brother (Derek, portrayed by Sean Patrick Thomas), who shares her love for dance.

(Image: movpins)
(Image: movpins)

Sara, the central character of this film, is pretty obnoxious. I feel less sympathy for her re-watching the film now than I did when watching it as a kid. She’s a total brat!

She’s grieving the loss of her mother, which is completely understandable, but she refuses to acknowledge the fact that her estranged father is doing the best he can and constantly treats him with disrespect. I also get a serious dose of second-hand embarrassment whenever she tries to act like a bad ass.

That being said, Julia Stiles does give an effective performance. She pulls of the “awkward girl, bobbing her head at the club” side of the character especially well.

Luckily, there are a lot of better-conceived side characters (and supporting performances) here to distract from Sara’s more annoying qualities.

In terms of the story itself, Roger Ebert’s 3-star review of the film notes: “The setup promises cliches, but the development is intelligent, the characters are more complicated than we expect, and the ending doesn’t tie everything up in a predictable way.” I have to agree with him here. For all of its flaws, the film does feature some interesting character development and isn’t all too predictable.

There are a few moments of high emotional impact. It is in these moments that the viewer must wonder: if catastrophes (car accidents, shootouts) happen every time Sara tries to make it big in ballet, isn’t it time to let those dreams simmer down?

Save the Last Dance holds up fairly well, watching it 12 years after its initial release. In its weaker moments it’s worth watching for a few laughs, but in its strongest moments it’s still an effective film.

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