Friday June 15, 2001
"Our Song" will surprise you. Like the quiet stranger who turns out to have something to say, this modest film has virtues that come out of nowhere. It takes familiar material and develops it with such tact and skill that we find ourselves moved and sort of amazed at the same time.
Written and directed by Jim McKay, "Our Song" does not inspire confidence with its premise, one that echoes any number of low-budget efforts: Come spend the summer with three 15-year-old young women of color in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. Truly, this would be a better world if members of Congress paid as much attention as independent filmmakers to what was happening with teenagers in distressed urban areas.
The first thing "Our Song" gets right is the tightly circumscribed nature of this environment. These girls may technically live in the great metropolis that is New York, but their world is largely contained in the village-sized few blocks where they live, shop, shoplift and go to school.
Another of the film's advantages is making the trio members of the real-life Jackie Robinson Steppers marching band, a snappy 60-piece Brooklyn aggregation whose presence adds energy and pizazz to a story that is by definition low-key.
Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Joy (Anna Simpson) and Maria (Melissa Martinez) are best friends, always hanging out together, always there for each other. This particular summer, however, turns out to be a pivotal one. Young as they are, they're going to have to make critical choices about where their futures are headed.
To state "Our Song's" thesis that baldly, however, goes against the way this film is put together. Director McKay (who did the much less successful "Girls Town") has utilized a subtler but still simple approach. Using Jim Denault's intimate camera work and a relaxed style, McKay makes it possible for us to hang out with the three as they live their lives, interacting with each other, their friends and families and their boyfriends, if and when they have them.
Joy is the dreamer of the group, fantasizing about a glamorous rock career, while Maria has few aspirations aside from learning Spanish from the more motivated Lanisha, whose Latino mother and black father are divorced but still on better terms than anyone else's parents.
The normal teenage trinity of clothes, boyfriends and school weighs heavily on these kids' minds but gradually we start to see what's different. Unlike their more comfortable peers elsewhere, there is no safety net for these girls, no easy way to deal with stresses they are too young to be prepared for, nothing to be said to them when they discover that life can be both hard and unforgiving.
Gradually, almost without our knowing it or sensing that the film is forcing our attention, we find ourselves sharing in all the emotions of these girls' lives. They become so real to us that we completely understand why they make the choices they do even as we wish it could be otherwise.
This is especially the case when they have to deal with the lure of pregnancy. Yes, lure, for one of the things "Our Song" is able to effectively dramatize is why this choice can have an appeal to girls who see nothing else hopeful in their lives.
Although the film has the authenticity of reality, it has been tightly scripted and wonderfully acted across the board, with a special nod going to Kerry Washington, who was also excellent as the star of "Lift," one of last year's more interesting Sundance films.
McKay made "Our Song" on a tiny budget with a skeleton crew, but that hasn't stopped it from reaching us emotionally. This is a film that doesn't go in expected directions and develops so gradually you don't even notice its developing at all. In theory, those could be drawbacks, but in these hands it creates something close to magic.
Our Song, 2001. R, for language and some teen drug use. Independent Film Channel Productions presents, in association with Beech Hill Films and Journeyman Pictures, a C-Hundred Film Corp movie, released by IFC Films. Director Jim McKay. Producers Jim McKay, Paul Mezey, Diana E. Williams. Executive producers Caroline Kaplan, Jonathan Sehring, Michael Stipe. Screenplay Jim McKay. Cinematographer Jim Denault. Editor Alex Hall. Costumes Tiel Roman. Music supervisor Julie Panebianco. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Kerry Washington as Lanisha Brown. Anna Simpson as Joycelyn Clifton. Melissa Martinez as Maria Hernandez. Marlene Forte as Pilar Brown. Ray Anthony Thomas as Carl Brown. Rosalyn Coleman as Dawn Clifton.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times