A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
"Save the Last Dance" begins with standard material but doesn't settle for it. 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. Above all, this is a movie where the characters ask the same questions we do: They're as smart about themselves as we are.
As the film opens, we meet Sara (Julia Stiles), a morose high school girl on a train. Flashbacks fill us in. She was a promising dancer with an audition at Juilliard, but her mother was killed in an accident while driving to see her daughter dance. Now there's no money for school, Sara loses her comfortable suburban existence and goes to live with her father, Roy (Terry Kinney), a musician who lives in a gritty Chicago neighborhood. Roy is not unfriendly, but isn't the parent type.
The students at Sara's high school are mostly African American, but as we notice this, we notice something else: The movie doesn't fall into ancient cliches about racial tension, the school is not painted as some kind of blackboard jungle, and the students are not electrified by the arrival of (gasp!) a white girl. They have more important things to think about.
Sara is befriended by a girl named Chenille (Kerry Washington), who shows her how easy it is to get your bag stolen if you leave it unattended. In class, she notices Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), whose comments show he's smart. She's taken to a club on Friday night, dances with Derek (who turns out to be Chenille's brother) and starts to like him. Eventually it becomes a romance, but this is not your basic high school love story, and includes dialogue like, "We spend more time defending our relationship than actually having one." Derek's best friend is Malakai (Fredro Starr). They've been in trouble together, and Malakai once pulled him out of a situation that could have destroyed his life. Malakai is a petty thief and a gang member; Derek is on a different track (he's just won a scholarship to Georgetown), but loyalty tugs at him when Malakai wants him to come along as backup at a potentially fatal encounter. Derek's choice, and the way the episode ends, may surprise you.