When the history of American pop culture in the late twentieth century is written, MTV will claim a major role. Formally, of course, the network’s greatest contribution was the music video, which reached a remarkable level of development in the 1980s–the best examples from that period were like visual equivalents of haiku or sonnets, and though the genre quickly entered a degenerate phase (in both style and content), its influence has extended into longer forms, especially feature films, where directors who cut their teeth on videos are now in charge of many big-budget flicks. (A pity that what works for four minutes doesn’t when dragged out over two hours.) The reality TV craze which is now flourishing is also an MTV creation–“The Real World” and “Road Rules” were the obvious progenitors of “Survivor” and its ilk. But MTV also popularized, in a more general way, a peculiarly hip, flippant attitude that characterized not only its programming but its commercials, and which has become a dominant element of the entire culture as it enters the twenty-first century.

That irreverent attitude has also marked the movies that MTV Productions has made in collaboration with Paramount Pictures–starting with the strange singing-cockroach musical “Joe’s Apartment” (1996) and “Beavis and Butthead Do America” (1996); it can even be seen in the work of a brilliant personal filmmaker like Alexander Payne, whose wonderfully cynical “Election” MTV Productions helped to get made in 1999.

But at times MTV goes softer and more serious, particularly when espousing worthy causes. The “Rock Out the Vote” movement is a good example, as are the public-service spots the network regularly broadcasts in its own name. “Save the Last Dance” may be considered the extension of this MTV inclination into the feature arena. It’s a crushingly earnest message movie that weds a musical element with a preachy tone. The result is rather like a glossy afterschool special that espouses such values as love, tolerance, friendship and hope in a narrative centered on interracial romance, with an overarching theme of following your dream whatever the obstacles might be.

The picture stars Julia Stiles as Sara, a New York suburban highschooler whose desire to study ballet at Juilliard plays a role in the accidental death of her divorced mother. Her dedication to classical dance destroyed by the tragedy, Sara moves to a rough Chicago neighborhood to live with her father, jazz trumpeter Roy (Terry Kinney), and enrolls in an inner-city school. There she quickly becomes buddies with spunky single mom Chenille (Kerry Washington) and her brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), whom Sara initially finds arrogant but soon comes to recognize as intelligent and sensitive. Chenille and Derek introduce Sara to hip-hop at a local club called Steps, and it’s not long before she and Derek are an item, much to the chagrin of the boy’s ex- girlfriend Nikki (Bianca Lawson) and his closest buddy, gangsta wannabe Malakai (Fredro Starr). Can their friendship survive animosity from family and friends? Can Sara’s interest in ballet be rekindled, and win her entrance to Juilliard? Can she reconcile with her dad? Will Derek gain acceptance into Georgetown, where he wants to study medicine? Can he resist Malakai’s attempt to drag him back into the street wars? Can Chenille get together with her baby’s irresponsible father?

These are only some of the questions raised by Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards’ overstuffed script, which intercuts extended dance sequences with heavy, often soapoperatic dialogue scenes in which characters pour forth their fears, troubles and aspirations while working its way to a denouement which one might describe as fictional in the Wildean sense (the good end happily and the bad unhappily). The result is extraordinarily obvious and, in the last analysis, quite shallow, rather like a series of Problem-of-the-Week TV movies crammed into a single two-hour span.

Still, the picture, while hardly recommendable, is relatively painless, simply because the performers are so ingratiating that they carry it over its worst patches. Stiles doesn’t seem right for the role of a ballet dancer in terms of her build, and as the editing proves, she belongs to the Kevin Bacon School of Dance. (You’ll remember how in “Footloose,” the actor was always filmed from the waist up in the musical numbers, only to have the camera cut away to waist-down shots of a real dancer doing the difficult steps, or full-figure ones in which the face is conveniently obscured.) But she paints a credible portrait of a smart, vivacious but vulnerable girl. Thomas matches her with his striking good looks and intense style, and the two play off one another nicely, even in melodramatic conversations or cutesy sequences like one where Derek instructs Sara on the art of inner-city attitude. Washington does a likable turn as the vibrant, tough-talking Chenille, and Kinney is suitably restrained as Sara’s long-absent dad, struggling to reconnect with her. Starr and Lawson come on a bit too strong as Malakai and Nikki, but the other supporting players are less strident. And, as usual, the Chicago locations are very photogenic.

There’s a fairy-tale quality to “Save the Last Dance” that director Thomas Carter accentuates by creating backgrounds–at the school, in the club, and on the streets–that lack the grittiness they demand, and by overplaying, rather than toning down, the script’s heavy-handed didacticism. But though the movie is unquestionably contrived and manipulative, if you’re not too demanding you might still find it moderately enjoyable for its good intentions and capable cast. As high-minded afterschool specials go, this is one “Dance” that, despite its clumsiness, you might not want to sit out.