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Save the Last Dance (2001)

May 3rd, 2008 · 5 Comments

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The following is my contribution to the “Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon” being held at Ferdy on Films, Etc. May 4-10. Marilyn Ferdinand has called on the Internets to write about dance and film to commemorate the birthday of Fred Astaire.


Following the death of her mother, high school student Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) leaves rural Illinois to live with her musician father (Terry Kinney) on the south side of Chicago. Sara gives up her dream to become a ballet dancer and tries to adapt to her new school, which features metal detectors, security guards and is almost entirely black. On her first day, she speaks out in English class, only to have another student, Derek Reynolds (Sean Patrick Thomas) ridicule her comment about Truman Capote.

Sara picks up a survival tip from Chenille (Kerry Washington), who later rescues her from sitting with the geeks in the cafeteria. She brings the new girl into her clique, even after Sara voices disgust over Derek, who she learns is Chenille’s brother. Sara impresses Chenille and her friend Diggy (Elisbeth Oas) with her balance beam skills in the gym and when they find out she used to dance, offer to get her into a club they go to called Stepps. Sara’s wardrobe turns out to be a disaster, but Chenille helps her reaccessorize on the spot.

When her ability to dance hip-hop proves tragic, Derek offers to help Sara with her steps. She finds out he’s studying to be a pediatrician. She agrees to go out with him, and his taken aback when they arrive at the ballet. Sara opens up about why she chose to give up ballet, but Derek encourages her to stop blaming herself for her mother’s death. He supports her dream of getting into Juilliard and helps her practice. The pair becomes a couple, but when Chenille finds out that her white friend is dating her brother, she raises an issue with the relationship.


Production history
Developing ideas for a new project, producers Robert W. Cort and David Madden started by thinking about genres that hadn’t been seen in a while. The one to really jump out at them was the dance movie. While the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had seen one dance themed blockbuster after another – Saturday Night Fever, Flashdance, Footloose – the last successful one had been Dirty Dancing in 1987. The producers were also intrigued by the idea of an interracial romance, how a mixed race couple in high school would deal with the social restraints of their relationship.

The producers hired Duane Adler, whose script Chasing the Game – about Adler’s experience as the only white player on a black high school basketball team – had been a semifinalist in the 1994 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. After revisions by Toni-Ann Johnson, the producers sent the script to Thomas Carter, who’d gotten his start as an actor on the NBC series The White Shadow and had gone on to direct Swing Kids. Carter didn’t like the script, but liked its context; white girl comes to a predominantly black school. He’d also been looking to direct an interracial love story.

Cort and Madden had purchased a spec script called Against the Ropes by Cheryl Edwards and asked her to rewrite something for them. Edwards found Save the Last Dance the most appealing, but explained what needed to be fixed when she met with Carter. “The main problem that I found in the original script is that it was over the top in the way that it handled the racial issues … Rather than have the whole school react to this white girl coming, I brought it down to her relationships with the black kids with whom she was hanging out, didn’t bang people over the head with it.”


Before shooting commenced in November 1999 in Lemont, Illinois, choreographers Fatima Robinson and Richmond Talauega spent a month working with Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas. Even after production shifted to Chicago, the actors spent eight hours each weekend in the dance studio. When released over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in January 2001, Save the Last Dance was a sleeper hit, ultimately grossing $91 million in the U.S. and another $40 million overseas. Critics largely dismissed it as another cliché ridden teen exploitation flick.

What sets Save the Last Dance apart from the fraternity of dance movies that have come along in its wake are its rich performances and its remarkable sophistication dealing with race and interracial romance.
While the script does occasionally cozy up to clichés, overall, this is a film that actually has something on its mind, addressing the concerns of real teens in the real world with the ambition of a good novel, as opposed to a teen flick with breakdancers flying through the air on trampolines.

In addition to Stiles and Thomas – who have terrific chemistry – Kerry Washington was a find as a teen mother split between love for her friend and her racial insecurities. Very few movies acknowledge the feelings black women have for black men dating white women, but Save the Last Dance doesn’t run from the subject. The dance sequences are choreographed with a tasteful sensuality, while the melodic soundtrack – featuring Donell Jones’ “U Know What’s Up” and “Get It On Tonite” by Montell Jordan – ultimately lends the film a joyous and upbeat vibe.


J. Robert Parks at The Phantom TollBooth writes, “This earnest movie, which feels like an after-school special, only with swearing and extended dance sequences, takes on the usual themes of modern-day teen movies: tolerance for other races, violence and drugs, and the importance of following your dreams. That the movie deals with any of these credibly seems a testament to Stiles’s integrity and acting chops rather than the pedestrian script, though I fully admit my own bias on the matter.”

“We’ve seen plenty of movies about young women adjusting to life in the big city. And we’ve certainly had enough teen romances to last a lifetime. Not to mention dance films … On the surface, at least, it’s difficult to understand why director Thomas Carter would try to do it all again. But if you dig beneath the surface – and give Save the Last Dance a chance – you’ll learn that there’s something slightly different here, and at least modestly good reason to take it in,” writes Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide.

Nathan Rabin at The Onion A.V. Club writes, “Save The Last Dance is particularly perceptive about the ways people in difficult situations create mental body armor just to survive, how they suppress their vulnerability to avoid being swallowed up by their surroundings … Though far from perfect – the dance aspects are far clumsier and more predictable than the central romance – a fine cast and Carter’s perceptive direction make Save The Last Dance the rare teen film in which substance far outstrips style.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Coming of age · Father/daughter relationship · High school · Train · Unconventional romance

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Marilyn // May 4, 2008 at 5:59 am

    Excellent review, Joe. I personally think the tepid endorsements don’t give this film enough credit. This was a very intelligent movie, real, and thought-provoking. As you say, the feelings of black women about black men who date white women almost never gets an airing. In fact, I can’t think of another film that has this element in it. The packed teenage audience I saw this film with, milling around noisily before it started, sat in rapt attention for the entire length of the film.

    As for the dancing, the hard work of these actors paid off. I was extremely impressed with Stiles. She did one small thing that convinced me that she understood what a dancer is all about. She stood talking with her feet in turnout. That is exactly what a ballet dancer would do.

    Bravo, and thanks for participating.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // May 4, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Marilyn: Most of the negative reviews I read came from guys where it was obvious that any movie involving teens and dancing was just not going to go over well with them. But like you, I found a lot to admire in the film. Thanks for pointing out that detail about Stiles’ feet. I must admit that “feet” were the last part of her physique that I would have noticed.

  • 3 Bill Courtney // May 5, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Hey Joe

    Thanks for the encouragement you gave at my new site. Your site is interesting as well and you have a knack for longer style reviews and commentaries. I want to try some things like that later myself, though I find I have a kind of writing style that throws in a little trivia and s few facts and comments and then I move on. I can can a little restless if the essay goes on for too long. You also review a variety of films, including comedy and love stories, which can be out of my field of “expertise”. I love those kind of movies, but I do not know enough of what is happening behind the scenes in the genres to have a foundation to leap from. So, I can come here to develop that foundation I guess.

    I do lay on a lot of images because I have so many. I also like to edit the images and work with Adobe Image Ready to and a program called Faststone Image Viewer to tweek them a bit. I had started a picassa site to use as a library but the task became over whelming to keep uploading through this poor connection so I am on a hiatus from that. I will get that address to you one day. I just began to find there were lots of images on the net, but usually not in one place, so I am focused on collecting some here, though they will mostly be of a pyshcotronic variety. Essays and revisions of older ones are in the oven as well.

    Thanks and I will be back here. See ya’

    Bill Courtney

  • 4 brittany f. // Nov 23, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    omg! thanks so much! i’m doing a research paper for film and this saved me SOOOO much time!!! thanks for the awesome review!! :)

  • 5 nardjes // Dec 21, 2011 at 11:49 am


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