A Marcia Brady of today, Sara (Julia Stiles, State and Main) may be the fantasy of American, middle-class white girls daydreaming in every high school and college. She’s the model everygirl: Apple pie and vanilla ice cream-pretty, but not threateningly gorgeous — a toe shoe-in for the prestigious Juilliard School’s ballet program. When her life takes a tragic turn, the fantasy darkens — literally. Sara must finish her senior year at what might as well be called Hip Hop High in Chicago’s predominantly black South Side.

Sara gets her groove back (and eventually her groove on) with Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas, Dracula 2000), a Georgetown premed program hopeful. In Marcia Brady talk, Derek is “dreamy.” He’s intense, but tender — strong black coffee with sugar to her American pie a la mode.

But vanilla ain’t the flava of the South Side. The sistahs make the point that oil and milk never mix. Derek’s best dawg, Malakai (Fredro Starr, Light It Up), accuses the brotha of “snowflakin’” and asks one of the central questions of Save the Last Dance: Is blood thicker than blondes?

When the dialogue’s true meaning lies between the lines or manages to keep some of the African-American poetry of the streets, the script by screenwriters Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards is at its best. At its worst, it sounds like the MTV production that it is. To their credit, Save the Last Dance isn’t Dirty Dancing in partial blackface. This is a different kind of fantasy, more about the current complexities of love and race in America and human growth than dancing and sexually coming of age.

Dancing in this movie is about letting go. Free your ass and your mind will follow. Director Thomas Carter knows how to shoot dance and shines when he lets his camera do most of the talking.

Besides the occasional bright moments of dialogue and direction, its unflinching confrontation of race and women’s issues is what saves Save the Last Dance.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].

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