Shortly after Save the Last Dance (2001) began I grew bored and stopped paying attention to the things to which the director wanted us to pay attention. I still listened. I would take a cursory glance at what was on screen from time to time. But mostly I was looking at the scenery. I did this because this film is set in Chicago and I love my home town. In my last year at Loyola I drove back to school from Florida. Approaching the city from the south, I could not help but be captivated all over by the Sears Tower (yeah, I said it) and its surrounding sky scrapers, like children gathered around to adore their father and me being drawn into their company. Thus I risked snapping a picture while I drove, no small feat given that car was a stick shift and there was the infamous Chicago traffic to navigate. Whenever my city is featured in films, I have that same sense of awe (without the potential of an accident) and I am always looking around for recognizable locations. That was about the only thing I got from this movie.
In Save the Last Dance, Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) is a high school ballerina with aspirations of going on to the Juilliard School in New York City to become a serious performer. Unfortunately, her mother is killed during her audition, and she receives this news on the heels of messing up during her performance and not gaining entrance to the school. On the heels of this awful incident she goes to live with her father on the South Side of Chicago, though if my Windy City eye is correct the actual location for the filming is the West Side (they seem to live near the Brown Line). She also attends the local public high school, which is a culture shock for her. To her credit, she takes it all in stride, and begins making friends right away. In particular, she becomes close with Chenille Reynolds (Kerry Washington), who introduces her to others, including her brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas). They all invite Sara to a nearby club for an evening of dancing, a style of which is beyond her experience, to say the least. It is Derek who takes her into his tutelage to acquire new moves, and their relationship develops. They both have a love of dance, but Sara is hesitant to talk about why she stopped doing ballet. The truth comes out, though, after one night when he surprises her with a ballet performance at the Chicago Theater. He also agrees to help her prepare when another opportunity arises to try out for Juilliard. In the end, Sara is able to get over her performance jitters and incorporate the new steps she learned in Chicago to impress the representatives of Juilliard and gain entrance.
As I mentioned at the outset, Save the Last Dance did not capture my interest outside of its setting. One of the main reasons for this, other than the city, is Stiles’ performance. I suppose she is a good enough dancer. I do not really know. I am not the best judge of such things. Instead, it is her robotic manner and lack of emotions throughout most of the movie. In the moment or two when she is forced to show some real feelings, as during the scene after the ballet with Derek, man does she chew the scenery. It almost made me look away from the buildings along the Chicago River.
Other than the gorgeous environs of Chicago, the other thing that Save the Last Dance handles well is race. To be sure, there are the expected scenes where Sara’s peers give her the business for being white and not truly understanding their perspective. There are a few other stereotypes as well, but nothing too terribly distracting. Where it shines best is in the relationship between Sara and Derek. At no point is it about the color of their skin. Instead, they connect as any two humans should: on mutual interests and characteristics. Racism is one of the stupidest inventions of man, and has no place in God’s design. I am happy to be a part of a Faith tradition that has seen leading lights in the form of saints come from every corner of the globe. It fulfills the New Testament mission of making disciples of all nations. We are all God’s people, and we should treat each other, as Sara and Derek do, as equals.
Save the Last Dance, I guess, would be appealing to people who like dance. As I have said a couple of times already, I enjoyed seeing Chicago. For me, you could digitally erase the main characters from the film and I would enjoy it just as much, if not more. Of course, you would not have a movie then, but I have seen worse cinematic gimmicks. I am not sure there is really a movie now, but whatever. Outside of these things, there are some rather scandalous underage behavior by all the characters, so I would not sit down the family for this one.