Friday, May 29, 2009

In Theaters: "Pressure Cooker"

Erica says that people ask her, “How can she be your favorite teacher? She’s so crazy!” They’re talking about Wilma Stephenson, the tough-as-nails Culinary Arts instructor at Philadelphia’s Frankford High School. Frankford is what tends to be politely called an “inner city” school; it’s a little rough, and most of the students are black kids from lower-income families. Mrs. Stephenson doesn’t cut anyone a break, though; she speaks distastefully of the “ghetto palate,” she calls her students out (loudly) when they make mistakes, she expects them to come in before school and over spring break for extra class. She sounds like Jaime Escalante from Stand and Deliver with a whisk instead of a slide-rule; the stunning new documentary Pressure Cooker is the story of her and a group of students that she helps find their way to a real future.

The thirteen students are her seniors, and they have good reason to think she can help; at the beginning of the film, she informs them that her students received a combined total of three-quarters of a million dollars in scholarships the previous year. These scholarships are awarded following a highly competitive cooking competition; her difficult gourmet boot camp will get them in shape for that fateful day. Pressure Cooker tracks their progress, from their practices to the preliminary competition to the finals and beyond.

Directors Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman focus on three students. Tyree Dudley is a mountain of a young man, an All-State football player who can probably get an athletic scholarship, but is hesitant to put all of his eggs in that basket. He’s become a skillful chef; his mom tells him, without hesitation, “Hopefully his next move will be to get us out of here… I’m banking on it.” Erica Gaither is a cheerleader who has been the de facto mother figure in her home; she takes care of her sister, who is blind and physically disabled, and though her father is supportive, she candidly notes that if he were pressed, he would certainly have no idea how she’s going to go to college. Fatoumata Dembele came to America four years earlier from the African nation of Mali not knowing a word of English; she’s now a 4.0 student who wants only to escape the clutches of her hidebound parents.

In many ways, the key to this particular kind of cinema vérité doc is to find great “characters”; it seems dishonest to use fiction terminology like that, but there’s no better description for compelling, complex people who the viewer is drawn to. This is where Becker and Grausman hit the jackpot. Throughout the film’s 99 minutes, you are genuinely engaged, but more than that, you’re invested—you like these kids so much. Tyree is effortlessly funny and warm; he gets laughs all through the film (particularly in a great scene where they’re delivering pies and cobblers to teachers for Thanksgiving), but there’s a wonderful sweetness to the way he walks his little sister to the bus. Erica’s candor and honesty is fascinating; she loves her family, but she knows that if she doesn’t get from them now, she never will—and that’s not an easy thing to admit. There’s a brief interview in which she talks about why going away to school is so very important to her, and there’s so much truth and pain in that moment, it just breaks your heart.

But no one’s story is more touching than Fautmata’s; early in the film, she says, “If I had a scholarship to college, I would go…” and nearly bursts into tears right then, the mere idea of pursuing a higher education is so amazing to her. It’s a spontaneous display of hope and emotion seldom seen in real life, much less onscreen. Late in the film, in an interview with the scholarship committee, she talks about her appreciation of the many opportunities she’s already been given, and you want to pay her way through school yourself.

There are plenty of other peripheral figures who are equally interesting (Tyree’s plump, funny sister; Erica’s beaming dad; the wise school football coach), but Mrs. Stephenson is perhaps the most interesting person in the movie. She’s a prickly pear, there’s no doubt about that—some of her criticisms and objections come off as mean-spirited, and there’s perhaps a case to be made that she’s too involved with this group of students (like when she insists that Tyree and Erica are going to the prom together). But she’s also smart as a whip and funny as hell, and most importantly, she really does care; her anxiety as she waits for them during the final competition is palpable, as is the pride on her face in those cutaways during their school graduation ceremony.

Becker and Grausman’s film is well-shot and impeccably cut, and they were wise to keep the focus fairly narrow; it would have been easy to clutter it up by profiling more of the students. There are occasional, very minor missteps—they probably spend a bit too much time on the prom, and the symbolism of the very last shot is a little too heavy. But the movie is strong and powerful, and the final scenes are unbelievably moving; I basically spent the last twenty minutes on the picture either on the verge of tears, or just over the edge. Pressure Cooker doesn’t have quite the same epic scope (or length) as Hoop Dreams, the previous movie it most closely resembles, but it is cut from the same rich cloth. What an extraordinary film.

"Pressure Cooker" is currently playing in New York, but only through June 2nd, so get off your ass, slackers. It opens June 5th in Los Angeles.

Oh, and go eat BEFORE the movie. You'll be hungry as hell afterwards.

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