A whole world can be fit into 76 minutes, and that's what the splendid documentary "OT: our town" manages to do.
The story of how a high school in Compton put on a production of the Thornton Wilder play, this film, brief as it is, is a saga as heartening as the irresistible "Spellbound," the summer's most surprising hit.
"OT" has the magical quality of a very particular reality caught on the fly, and it could not have been done without the singular combination of serendipity and skill that marks the most successful slice-of-life films.
The story starts with Catherine Borek, an English teacher at Compton's Dominguez High, who (along with colleague Karen Greene) decided to put on the school's first play in more than 20 years. The obstacles were many: no money, no auditorium, not even a stage. In fact, one reason Borek chose "Our Town" was that the only set needed was chairs.
Though the Wilder play has apparently been performed more than any other in the history of the American theater, its flinty New England quality (as conveyed in clips from a celebrated 1977 TV version starring Hal Holbrook) seems not the best mix for a school celebrated only for its football team and a city best known for rap music groups like N.W.A and their "Straight Outta Compton" attitude. But, as one of the cast tells director Scott Hamilton Kennedy, "we're not all gangbangers and hoochie mamas. We don't want to reiterate those stereotypes."
Kennedy, a music video and commercial director, would never have made this film if he hadn't met and fallen in love with Borek at an L.A. party. When she told him about her play project, he knew he had to record the experience.
"I never tried to raise money, or put a crew together," he said. "I knew that if any time was wasted trying to do all that, this moment was going to pass undocumented."
So Kennedy went to Compton one month and 13 days before opening night with a camera so unimpressive he said it looked like a model you can buy at Circuit City. But the non-intimidating nature of his equipment enabled the students to relax around him, helping to create an intimacy and trust that are the film's greatest strengths.
Once on the scene, Kennedy found he had two stories to deal with. One was the obvious but enthralling chronicle of the day-to-day chaos of putting on a play with no budget and two dozen completely inexperienced actors. The other was the personal stories of the kids involved, how they fought to escape stereotyping and not be limited by their often-unhappy backgrounds.
Kids like the serious and thoughtful Christopher Patterson or the live wire 'N Sync fan Jackie Oliver. With his Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt, the often-depressed Jose Perez seemed well cast as "Our Town's" drunk, while strong-minded Ebony Starr Norwood-Brown, with a personal history that included being abandoned by a birth mother who was a prostitute, took easily to the commanding role of stage manager.
The cast members also had to surmount the notion that this play was not for them, to finally understand that the rural setting and "farm lingo" of Wilder's piece notwithstanding, its theme of the necessity of appreciating life while we have it was one that they, with some inspired tinkering, could make their own.
Because all of this was real, the outcome of these personal and public dramas was not at all a sure thing. It wasn't clear that the actors would manage to regularly attend rehearsals, let alone memorize their lines or, even if they could pull it all off, that anyone would pay real money to go to a performance put on in the school cafeteria.
Ultimately, the lessons of this charming, exhilarating film come not only for the cast but for an audience for whom Compton may seem as distant as Nepal. As Norwood-Brown says, "We're not that different, but we're way different than you think we are."
When cast members are shown gleefully making an OT sign with their hands rather than the gang signs displayed in the film's opening montage, we can sense a cultural change as profound as it is lighthearted. These kids will never be quite the same again, and neither will we.
'OT: our town'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Appropriate for teen audiences
An OT Films/Stress Box Inc. production, released by Film Movement. Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy. Producer Scott Hamilton Kennedy. Executive producer Mark Pellington. Cinematographer Scott Hamilton Kennedy. Editors Chris Figler, Scott Hamilton Kennedy. Music Kevin Haskins, Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes.
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