Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Kerry Washington, Anna Simpson, Melissa Martinez, Marlene Forte, Raymond Anthony Thomas , Rosalyn Coleman, Carmen L—pez, Chuck Cooper
Written by: Jim McKay
Directed by: Jim McKay
MPAA Rating: R for language and some teen drug use
Language:
Running Time: 97
Date: 10/08/2001
IMDB

Our Song (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

This One Goes Out to All Y'all

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As the film Our Song opens on the real-life Jackie Robinson Steppers drumming and trumpeting and marching, the camera doing a little jig along with them, we're inclined to believe that Our Song is a documentary, a story unfolding before our eyes. We soon realize that it's fictional, that these are actors with lines of dialogue. But the film still feels like it's real and unfolding right before our eyes.

Directed by Jim McKay, the film follows three friends living in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in late August, just before Labor Day weekend. They're all members of the Steppers as well: Lanisha (Kerry Washington, also in Save the Last Dance), Joycelyn (Anna Simpson), and Maria (Melissa Martinez). Spending the hot day together they run into a friend, another young girl about their age, already saddled with a young son. They learn that their school will be closing down due to asbestos troubles, and each student must find a new school to attend in the fall.

Life isn't very good, it seems, in Crown Heights, but mostly people don't talk about it. "There are good days, and there are bad days," more than one character says. One of the three girls turns up pregnant from a night of passion at a party some weeks before. She confronts the would-be father, and we hear another familiar song, "you sure you didn't sleep with anyone else?" and "You ain't gonna abort my baby," and so on. Another of the girls slowly drifts away from her friends in the Steppers to two other girls who are more into fashion and socializing.

In addition, Lanisha suffers from asthma, and we also expect that to come into play for some frenzied climax, but it never does. It's just a detail about her character that we should know. By the end of the film, Lanisha takes the long train ride alone to her new school. The camera stays on her face for a long, long time, as she thinks -- or perhaps tries not to think -- about life.

Director McKay happily avoids all the pitfalls of this kind of film. Any reasonable moviegoer has every right to expect the film to climax at the big band competition, where the down-and-out Steppers win out against the rich white schools, against all odds. But McKay simply provides footage of the Steppers as atmosphere. We're never sure how much this band means to the girls; for some it's perhaps a way out of poverty and misery for a while.

As a result, the dramatic pull of the story rests solely on the characters themselves. McKay doesn't provide much structure or poetry other than the sullen reality of this life. Overall, this tactic works. But the similar Ghost World works much better because of its indirect approach to the material, and the gentle, artful way it pieces itself together.

But while the Ghost World girls continually think about the future, the long run is too painful to think about in Our Song, as a counselor in a free clinic discovers as she tries to get the pregnant girl to decide what she wants to do with her life. The power of Our Song finally comes through in its dozens of mesmerizing moments, including a sleepover the three girls have early in the film.

They discuss flavors of ice cream and other details before Lanisha solemnly describes how she feels walking down a particular street in Brooklyn. She imagines someone starting to fire a gun into the crowd and that she'll have to help someone, or that she'll get shot herself. But the idea doesn't scare her. "Today is a good day. I'm happy today," she says. That's really what matters.