Some hobbies are apparently much more likely to encourage neurotic behavior in those who take them seriously than others. Chess, at least if you believe Hollywood’s depiction, seems to trigger paranoia and obsessiveness in players who devote lots of time to studying it. In comparison, ballet seems to produce eating disorders, self-injury and outright psychosis (at least in “Black Swan”), but this seems to be a curse for young women. Most of their male peers in comparison come across as stable on the big screen. “Save the Last Dance,” presents a heroine (Julia Stiles) who does have issues with a capital I, but they center around other things than body issues and mental illness. I don’t know if her character qualifies as “well-adjusted,” but compared to many movie characters who dance, she’s a beacon of sanity.
In the movie, Julia plays a serious ballet student who aspires to Juilliard, but whose ambitions are derailed when her mom is killed on the way to her big audition, which she also winds up botching. Since her parents are separated, she moves to Chicago to live with her single father, with whom she has a formal kind of relationship. She winds up attending a predominantly black high school, which is quickly established as being “rougher” than her previous one. However, in movie tradition, she meets a helpful Samaritan on the first day, in the form of Kerry Washington, a fellow student and single mom, whose brother (Sean Patrick Thomas) also attends their scchool. Kerry becomes Julia’s friend, taking her to a dance club to strut her stuff, but there’s also tension because Julia is white and starts dating Sean, who’s black, and who has managed to turn his life around (he’s going to medical school), after participating in some gang activity, and whose friend is still involved in it. Eventually, Julia confides in Sean about her dream to attend Juilliard, and he starts helping her prepare to re-audition. But can the two overcome their issues, as well as their friends’ and families’, to triumph?
This movie takes a page from “Dirty Dancing,” with the more centered, laid back guy helping the more uptight girl prepare for a big dance performance/learn life lessons, as well as all the Hollywood movies where the white character acquires some hipness from an African-American. But it also takes an honest look at such things as interracial romance, single motherhood (there’s a memorable scene where Kerry has to wait forever for her son to receive medical care), and just plain coming of age. The movie also won “Best Kiss,” at the MTV Movie Awards, though I don’t know what the criteria are for that. Plus it has a line that will ring true for anyone who’s ever had a rocky relationship: i.e. “We spend more time defending our relationship than actually having one,” as Julia’s character points out. Fortunately, there is a happy ending.