When marching-band director Tyrone Brown asks his Jackie Robinson Steppers, "Are you motivated?" he's not so much inquiring as presenting a challenge. In the middle of a sweltering summer in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, tensions, temptations, and distractions are omnipresent. Synchronizing 60 players (while diverting some of them from becoming playahs) is no mean feat, so the Steppers' practices on a hot asphalt parking lot are serious business. You'll see not smiles but the intense sobriety of hungry hunters. Stiff competition awaits.
Writer-director Jim McKay really gets this vibe, starting off his latest feature, Our Song, with the maneuvers of the Steppers. The opening segment, a bravura spectacle of thundering drums and swinging brass (masterfully edited by Alex Hall), immerses us in this world posthaste, as if we're literally in the band. Following that, we swoop right into our trio of young leading ladies: Lanisha Brown (Kerry Washington), Joycelyn Clifton (Anna Simpson), and Maria Hernandez (Melissa Martinez). Their school-hall conversation begins, of course, with boys. Lanisha has the blues because her beau wants to slow things down, so Joy offers her insightful philosophy ("I just think he wanna break up with you this week, so he don't gotta get you no birthday present"), and then the tone turns giddy. The girls discuss their ultimate birthday parties (for example a limo with a pool in it), and we see that they really just wanna have fun.
Growing up being what it is, however, their world is rife with conflicts and complications. For starters their friend Eleanor (Kim Howard) lacks a father for her son now that her man has been locked up for selling marijuana. Despair creeps in even further as the girls share with their friend the woe of having their asbestos-tainted school demolished, which means in the fall they'll be scattered all over the place.
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This is familiar territory to McKay, whose Girls Town in 1996 charted similarly dire (and often charming) straits. Both films deal with the plight of teenage girls in tough environments, delving into alienation, confusion, and suicide as well as girlish glee, the thrill of new discoveries, and the irrepressible spirit of youth. Unlike that largely unscripted outing, however, Our Song began with a screenplay and reportedly stuck quite close to the page. What's most impressive about this is that, if one didn't know better, the naturalism of the performances could be taken for that of a documentary.
Washington, Simpson, and Martinez may be drawing heavily upon their own experiences as teenage girls, but all are quite good actresses. Whether the girls are caught in a tense moment, as when newly pregnant Maria snubs Lanisha for suggesting an abortion ("Why don't you just shut up and let me figure this shit out on my own!") or they're smooching bad boys at a reggae party, the realism is so effective it feels close to eavesdropping.
To behold such young people grappling with issues that would bewilder the average adult -- rotten pay, language gaps, disrespectful brats at the table -- is actually rather uncomfortable at times. For this reason, however, the performances of the girls' complex parents are even more impressive. One walks away from Our Song feeling a kinship with Lanisha's folks (Marlene Forte and Ray Anthony Thomas) as her mother teaches the ambitious dad Spanish one moment and then complains to Lanisha behind his back, "Tu padre, tenga muchas ideas, para not much follow-up." Meanwhile Rita Hernandez (Carmen López) isn't quite ready to deal with her teenage daughter's somber claims to maternal wisdom. She's too busy sorting out how her daughter intends to get to school in the fall: "You think the Bronx is around the corner? What are you gonna take, a spaceship?"
It's moments like these that give Our Song its edge, helping it to avoid the traps of cheap melodrama. McKay has a gift for working with actors, and it shows. Where the movie may lag, for some, is in its somewhat meandering story line. Still, even after it's over, Our Song sticks with you. Reflecting upon it, one truly feels the powerful sense of challenges overcome.