Skin color is merely the surface of race relations, and the surprisingly insightful "Save the Last Dance" underlines that fact by exploring a few of the cultural attributes that divide (and unite) black and white America.
Julia Stiles ("10 Things I Hate About You," "State and Main") plays Sara, a small-town Illinois teenager whose passion for ballet is intended as the surest sign of her whiteness. When her mother dies, she moves in with her musician father (Terry Kinney), who lives in a predominantly black Chicago neighborhood.
At her new high school, Sara quickly makes friends with Chenille (Kerry Washington) and Chenille's well-read, well-spoken brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas). The differences between their world and Sara's couldn't be sharper: Chenille is a single mom who lives with her grandmother and has to wrestle with the difficulties caused by her child's unreliable father; Derek, meanwhile, must constantly choose between his own ambitions to become a doctor and his loyalty to the hoodlum friends who dominate his neighborhood.
About their only common ground is found at Stepp's, a nightclub where the latest hip-hop dance moves rank as vital social currency -- somewhere above the pervasive crime and adolescent rivalries.
While the resulting romance between Sara and Derek plays out unremarkably, the surrounding social milieu is treated with unusual restraint and good sense. There's no over-the-top comic relief, no preachy moralizing and no flexing of a let's-get-back-at-our-parents attitude.
Instead, director Thomas Carter opts for realism. And while he never quite makes it possible for us to forget that we're watching a love story produced by MTV Films, he still raises some valid points about the roles a white woman can play in a black man's world. He's also sensitive to the struggles of kids who want out of the ghetto, yet can't turn their backs on their less optimistic friends.
Carter tackled similar themes in 1993's "Swing Kids," in which a group of young people in 1930s Germany found themselves torn between American dance music and changing family values. That movie flopped, failing to make stars of Christian Bale, Sean Patrick Leonard and Noah Wylie; thanks to its MTV roots, "Save the Last Dance" will likely be spared the same fate.
Stiles gives Sara a palpable, appealing inner strength, though Thomas (currently appearing on TV's "The District") is suitable but unimpressive. Far more interesting are rapper-turned-actor Fredro Starr's portrayal of a mean-spirited gangbanger and Washington's performance as Chenille, a woman who knows just where she stands in the grand scheme of things.
Carter approaches Sara and Derek's relationship with uncertainty. It's a smart tack to take in a nation that endorses diversity more readily in public than it does at home.