Teen drama strikes the reality zone

Movie: Our Song

Our Song
Length: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Studio: IFC Films
Release Date: 2001-09-14
Cast: Kerry Washington, Anna Simpson, Melissa Martinez, Marlene Forte, D'Monroe
Director: Jim McKay
Screenwriter: Jim McKay
WorkNameSort: Our Song
Our Rating: 3.50

Jim McKay has a bone to pick with the MPAA. In an open letter to the parental-advisory organization's screening panel, writer/director/ producer McKay questioned its wisdom in slapping his film, "Our Song" -- a documentary-like drama that follows three Brooklyn high-schoolers over the course of one summer -- with an "R" rating.

True, McKay admitted, the movie includes the utterance of nine "fucks," two "motherfuckers" and "one humorous, English-language translation of the word Ã?pussy' referring to the act of cunnilingus." But he also noted the absence of the "n" word, on-screen nudity or violent acts of any stripe.

The rationale for McKay's petition: Young people deserve access to a film that portrays them realistically. And he didn't stop there: "We feel that this film has something important to say to them and fills a giant void in their lives and in our society."

"Our Song" is inarguably realistic, but its didactic capabilities are harder to discern. Slow, talky and ultimately ambiguous, the film remains watchable thanks to the effectiveness of its three leads. Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Joyceln (Anna Simpson) and Maria (Melissa Martinez) are pals caught up in a tangle of immediately recognizable inner-city problems. As the movie begins, they learn that their school is about to be closed due to unacceptable asbestos levels. The nearest solution available to them -- a long, tiresome commute by bus to another school in Queens -- is emblematic of the world's unwillingness to meet them halfway. What they really need, they all agree, is for a new, committed teacher to take them under her wing. She should be white. She should be blond. She should be ...

"Michelle Pfeiffer," one of the girls says, hitting the iconic nail on the head.

Their membership in their school's marching band is meant to impart focus and continuity -- to their lives and the film -- but the rehearsal scenes are largely disconnected from the surrounding drama. There's plenty of the latter to preoccupy us. The asthmatic Lanisha has an indifferent boyfriend and a household that's been split by divorce. She has already been pregnant once in her young life; this makes her an apt counselor to Maria, who is carrying the child of another indifferent boy. Maria can easily top Lanisha's complaints that her dad doesn't have enough time for her: Her own father is in prison. Joyceln is being raised by a single mother whose devotion to watching TV, reading "Essence" and partying makes her more of a contemporary than a role model. No wonder Joyceln's ambition appears limited to sustaining vague fantasies of eventual importance. ("I get what I want through hard work and determination," she recites into her mirror, feigning interviewee status.)

First-timers all, Simpson, Washington and Martinez display so much innate talent and charm that their characters are impossible not to like. The girls' soulful but composed delivery is about the only acceptable conduit imaginable for McKay's sometimes awkward writing. Too often, the three young ladies are cast as a homegirl Greek chorus tsk-tsk-ing the unfortunate doings in their neighborhood, and the stigma extends to the supporting characters as well.

McKay -- who explored similar ground in his previous feature, the Sundance award-winning "Girls Town" (1996) -- undermines his MPAA plea by refusing to resolve almost every crisis his overworked pen can devise. This is real life, he appears to argue, wherein salvation doesn't wait around every corner. That increasingly common cop-out, which rests on the fallacy that complete storytelling is somehow dishonest, also thwarts a good deal of the film's alleged good intentions. Why beguile children with your ability to replicate their woes, then refuse to float even a whiff of a solution? "Our Song" is a capable pantomime, but don't confuse it with an education.

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