Sara Johnson is the best ballerina in her small Illinois town. So says her closest friend and personal cheerleader. But Sara’s sights are set much higher than Midwestern community auditoriums—she wants Julliard. But on the day of her big audition, Sara’s mom is killed in a car accident, plunging her into a world of guilt, confusion and ... hip-hop.
Sent to live with her thus-far-disinterested father, Roy, in urban Chicago, the very white Sara has a lot to learn. With gutsy, mature-beyond-her-years teen mom Chenille Reynolds tutoring her in black street chic ("slammin’," not "cool"; spaghetti straps, not button-ups from The Gap), Sara learns how to protect herself, where not to walk at night and how to be real. She also falls in love with Chenille’s brainy brother, Derek, who, among other things, teaches her to hip-hop with the crowd at Steps, a night club hangout where Sara must prove herself to her new peers.
Caught in two very different sets of circumstances, Sara and Derek push each other to rise above. She needs a reason to pursue ballet in spite of her grief and regret over her mother’s death. He needs a shove to walk away from his "thuggin’" pal Malakai and go after Georgetown and med school. Adding the social pressure of an interracial relationship complicates matters for both, but it’s their honesty and care for each other that drives them to break out of oppressive environments, both external and self-imposed.
positive elements: Life isn’t easy for these families, but this film lauds reconciliation and perseverance wherever it can. Chenille and Derek’s dad is never mentioned, and their mother was a drug addict, prostitute and deserter. Still, raised by their grandmother, Chenille and Derek have a strong family bond. He helps his sister take care of her son in the absence of the boy’s father. And when Derek receives his Georgetown acceptance letter, it’s an celebratory occasion for the entire family.
Likewise, Sara’s family has been torn by divorce, and she and her dad are initially cold toward each other—so cold that she calls him by his first name throughout the film. But her closeness with her mother is showcased, and even with Dad, there’s hope. Though at first he seems to mirror her aloofness, Roy makes the right choice and deliberately begins doing things to care for Sara. By the end of the movie, he has tenderly told her he loves her.
Save the Last Dance tackles touchy urban issues such as the need for strong, responsible African-American men in inner-city communities. It doesn’t glorify Chenille’s life as a single mother, but shows the heartbreak of raising a child whose father is unreliable and unsupportive. Derek is a hero for studying hard and setting his sights high, but the film also acknowledges that, without extraordinary academic or other talent, opportunities to get out of the ghetto are all but non-existent.
Derek struggles with the choice between loyalty to Malakai ("I’m down wit him; I’m just not down wit what he does.") and the higher good of avoiding revenge and possible murder.
For a teenage romance, Derek and Sara’s relationship is surprisingly unselfish and honest. They challenge each other to grow. They’re willing to discover each other’s interests. Even after counting the cost of ridicule from friends, Derek stands by Sara and welcomes her into his world. Unfortunately …
sexual content: What starts out looking sweet and respectful (Derek offers to walk Sara home and waits several dates before kissing her goodnight) turns into an implied sexual tryst on the couch. (And demonstrates very poor judgment on Sara’s part—she shows Derek around her home for the first time, then tells him, "Dad’s at work right now. He’ll be gone all night.") Sara and Derek also stage a public makeout session on the subway in order to disgust and embarrass a nosy and judgmental fellow passenger.
The hip-hop style of dance that’s at the artistic center of the movie pulses with sexual energy. Bodies packed onto a dance floor. Short, tight and suggestive clothing. High-contact dancing that some have referred to as "sex with clothes on." Realistic? Certainly. Beneficial? Hardly. And hip-hop isn’t the only dance that’s sexy. Spotlighted scenes from the Joffrey ballet that Sara and Derek attend together emphasize the harmony of men’s and women’s bodies in very sensual ways.
Additionally, several conversations—mostly among teen guys—include crude and disrespectful references to sex.
spiritual content: Twice, a friend from her old home offers to pray for Sara. This kindness is not ridiculed, but it’s clear that cute suburban prayers are something Sara leaves behind when she moves to the city. In Chicago, prayer is nice but self-assertion is what she must depend on for protection. Besides, Sara’s friend may be fond of prayer, but she’s still not opposed to using Jesus’ name inappropriately.
violent content: Two car-crash scenes are not graphic, but briefly show bloody injuries. Drive-by shootings demonstrate the unavoidable violence and revenge of gangsta life. A scene in an out-of-the way school bathroom portrays a male student beating up a female student for drug money. Malakai starts a brutal fist-fight at Steps, kicking his rival after he’s down. Sara gets into a girl-fight with Nikki, who is jealous over Derek, and Derek responds in kind by slugging Malakai in the face to defend Sara.
crude or profane language: Dozens of instances. Some of it is harsh, but most is the "conversational" profanity common in all too many high schools (the most obvious example is the constant substitution of the s-word for "stuff"). B--ch and a-- also get a workout, most often representing the misogyny of gangsta-speak. Particularly disappointing is that the only time the f-word is uttered, it’s Sara who uses it. There are a few crude sexual references and misuses of God’s name. Several songs played at Steps sport profanity.
drug and alcohol content: Steps is not only a club, but a bar. While alcohol is played up only in one scene (where it’s obvious that Sara is being initiated into the world of booze), much is made of the fact that many of the club’s patrons are high school students toting fake IDs. Roy smokes habitually, as do a number of the high school students, including Malakai.
conclusion: Save the Last Dance nicely captures the contrast between Sara’s old world and her new one. The colors are different. The language is different. The temperature on the dance floor is very different. And in this new world, Sara is different. There is obvious growth associated with leaving behind a comfortable world ("where everything makes sense") and becoming vulnerable in a place where life is raw. The intentional comparison of ballet and hip-hop as "art forms" could inspire stimulating discussion.
But here’s the dilemma of urban life: Poverty is not good. Broken families are not good. Illiteracy. Fatherlessness. Drive-by shootings. Not good. No one denies these things. But, as Chenille says, "gettin’ the he-- up outta here" is tough, and not many can manage it. So those who do are ridiculed, and those who don’t must find something to exult in. In this film hip-hop dancing becomes the answer—it’s seen as a release, a common ground, a thing of beauty in the dingy world of the city. Unfortunately, its simmering sexuality (and the violence and misogyny of its accompanying lyrics) can only add fuel to a fire that’s already done great damage to the urban world. The flaw in Save the Last Dance is the fact that it revels in hip-hop’s beauty without acknowledging its error. That omission, coupled with excessive foul language (for a PG-13 film), teenage sex, smoking and drinking greatly weakens the overall impact of a fistful of magnificent messages.