Directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker's memorable documentary "Pressure Cooker" manages to be moving, inspirational and tremendously real without ever turning manipulative or preachy. It provides an absorbing, highly engaging look at a year in the life of a Philadelphia high school culinary arts class and its nascent chefs as they prepare for a life-changing scholarship competition.
Focusing on three of veteran teacher Wilma Stephenson's best students -- the vulnerable, responsible Erica; diligent African immigrant Fatoumata; and big-hearted jock Dudley -- the film deftly goes beyond the confines of cooking class to include the highlights of these teenagers' senior year along with glimpses inside their working-class home lives. It's a mostly upbeat portrayal of an inner-city school environment, with only passing shots of entryway metal detectors and the occasional reference to "getting out" of Northeast Philly to suggest something tougher underneath.
Seeing these earnest kids turn out gourmet salads, entrees and desserts is a treat, but watching instructor Stephenson in action is the real kick here. Though impossibly bossy and blunt, with a regional accent that has a life of its own, she's utterly devoted and warmly maternal to her students.
Stephenson's a true original, worthy of her own reality TV show.
As "Pressure Cooker" proves: Anything is possible.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena, (626) 844-6500