A Step in the Right Direction

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"Let's bounce!"

 "He's trippin'!"

 "Somebody peeped us and called Five-0!"

The above lines of dialogue are not from the court transcript of the ongoing Sean "Puffy" Combs trial in New York City, but from the current box office hit "Save the Last Dance," a film that's so intent on employing supposedly hip, au courant phrases that at times, well, it seems like the film is frontin' just a little bit. But despite the sometimes too-eager-to-be-hip script, and despite the fact that the trailer makes it look and smell like yet another crummy Freddie Prinze Jr.–type movie, "Save the Last Dance" is actually a pretty entertaining piece of work. And Freddie Prinze Jr. does not appear in a single scene.

"Save the Last Dance" draws some of its core plot from a thousand other star- crossed-lovers stories (think Romeo and Juliet) and its basic style from a thousand other fast-cutting MTV-influenced films (think "Romeo and Juliet" as directed by Baz Luhrmann). Julia Stiles ("Ten Things I Hate About You") plays Sara, an aspiring dancer who, after a family tragedy, transfers from her comfortable suburban school to a mostly minority school in the inner city. Once there, she encounters Derek (played by Sean Patrick Thomas, previously seen in "Cruel Intentions"), a black student at her new school, and the two butt heads over romance and race.

Teen flicks often skimp on the acting, but the performances here are quite accomplished. Stiles is understated and empathy-winning, though it's pretty clear from the editing (shots of Stiles' face followed by shots of a woman's feet doing intricate dance steps) that much of her dancing was done by a double. Still, by the end, the viewer is rooting just as hard for Stiles and her double to do well in the big end-of-the-movie dance audition as we once did for Jennifer Beals and her double at the big end-of-the-movie dance audition in "Flashdance." Thomas gives a solid performance as Stiles' love interest. The movie plays their interracial romance just right — the issue is discussed and debated, but the brother still gets to make a booty call. Hollywood movies, all too often, go to extremes on the subject of interracial sex: either they make too big a deal of it, or they avoid it altogether. In "The Pelican Brief," for example, Denzel Washington didn't so much as get a kiss from Julia Roberts. The fact that "Save the Last Dance" opened at No. 1 at the box office suggests that a significant portion of the American public isn't as skittish on the subject as Hollywood may think. I say put "Pelican Brief II" into production and let Julia and Denzel get it on.

Despite solid performances from Stiles and Thomas, the side characters in "Save the Last Dance" nearly steal it. Kerry Washington, who plays a black classmate at Sara's new school who befriends her, delivers an involving speech about her conflicted feeling about interracial dating. And Fredro Starr (who also performs the movie's theme song, "Shining Through," with Jill Scott, on the soundtrack) is convincing in a Tupac Shakur–ish role as a thug-life-livin', low-riding gangsta who nearly pulls Derek into a life of crime.

Of course the movie ends with everybody dancing, "Soul Train"-style, as the credits role. Hey, MTV Films was behind this picture — could it have ended any other way? And it's never adequately explained where Derek, who says he wants to be a veterinarian, learned all his hip-hop dance steps. Perhaps he's been training with DMX's dogs. But while a good number of teen romances of late have skimped on the quality (just check out the awful "Down to You," which starred Prinze and Stiles), "Save the Last Dance" is a movie that can be enjoyed without guilt. Yeah, sure, there's a lost generation of young folks out there who are buying Britney Spears records and 'NSync concert tickets and watching "TRL" on a regular basis and writing Carson Daly fan letters streaked with tears of passion. But that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be entertained, does it?