Saturday, October 17, 2015

Neglected Gem #84: Our Song (2001)

Melissa Martinez, Anna Simpson and Kerry Washington in Our Song (2001).

Our Song is a small, sweet picture about three teenage African-American girls in Crown Heights – best of friends dealing with the vicissitudes of adolescence exacerbated by the special challenges of a poor neighborhood. Lanisha (Kerry Washington, at the very beginning of her acting career) lives with her Spanish mom (Marlene Forte); her dad (Raymond Anthony Thomas) is a loving and well-meaning man who, in her mother’s words, lacks follow-through, and that’s the reason they split up, though they’ve remained friends. Lanisha has a boyfriend (Tommy Axson) but he isn’t around much, and lately he’s floated the idea that they see other people. Maria (Melissa Martinez) has a more serious problem: she’s just learned she’s pregnant, and she’s afraid to say anything to her mother (Carmen L√≥pez), a no-nonsense woman who thinks her daughter should concentrate on getting a decent job. Joycelyn (Anna Simpson) is a restless, dreamy girl who works in a clothing store and has it in her head to manage her own someday – if her number one agenda, to become a star, doesn’t pan out.

The camera adores the three girls, and the writer-director, Jim McKay, maintains his focus on them while trying to stay out of their way. He refuses to shape the material in any conventional mode; the movie drifts from episode to episode, often dropping a story line and maybe meandering back to it much later. The disadvantages to this method are obvious. We’re deprived of the pleasures that a worked-through narrative can bring; there’s barely a structure to hang the scenes on, and sometimes the movie seems to be repeating itself. And since the three principal performers are unskilled, moments that feel important are occasionally botched or simply slip away. But McKay has skills of his own, and we learn to value them. Going for the feel of real life in Crown Heights, his soft-pedaled drama produces fresh rhythms, and he stays with the girls long enough to get their private thoughts and emotions on camera; these winning actresses are gently in tune with something deep inside themselves that McKay and his photographer, Jim Denault, keep picking up. (The remarkably talented Denault, who has also collaborated with Michael Almereyda, helps give the movie warmth and texture.) The girls are so natural that after a while the contributions of the trained actors in the adult roles – especially Thomas – begin to feel a little intrusive and over the top.

McKay can’t always get the movie going without giving it a bit of a push. In one scene, the girls discover that one of their classmates, a young single mother whose boyfriend is in jail for dealing, has thrown herself and her little boy out the window of their project. The neighbors put up a memorial to them – photos, poems, messages – outside the building. Despite McKay’s refusal to milk this sequence as most directors would, it’s still melodrama, and it feels phony; the only thing that saves it is the responses of the girls, which are touchingly authentic. In another scene, Lanisha’s speech about the potential for any of them to be killed by a drive-by shooter sticks out: you can hear the screenwriter in it. The main problem with working the way McKay does isn’t the roughness of the finished product, but the difficulty of keeping it pure, since his movie teaches us to spot any false moments, just as we spot Thomas’s actorishness.

Our Song begins with a rehearsal by a neighborhood band that both Joycelyn and Maria play in. The Labor Day concert they’ve been striving toward would be the set-piece in a traditional movie, but here it’s arrived at almost randomly. The band members come in all ages and sizes, and their spirited performance is one of the movie’s high points. The film is full of lovely throwaway scenes, like the one where Lani and Maria giggle over a cute white boy (Greg Haberny) at a local food stand. As Joycelyn abandons her old friends for newer ones, the relationship between Lanisha and Maria, who talk to each other in Spanish (Lani is teaching Maria) as a sort of private language, becomes more and more firmly cemented. Lani, who once got pregnant and gave her baby up for adoption, takes charge of Maria, accompanying her to the clinic, and it’s Maria who takes care of her friend during a scary asthma attack. When their school is closed down for asbestos, Lanisha finds another one close to her father’s apartment and urges Maria to enroll along with her, but Maria’s mind is elsewhere; she fails to show up the first day. The most moving part of the film is the friends’ learning how to deal with this change – to ride it as they’ve had to ride so many other unexpected upsets. Washington and Martinez are so effortlessly convincing in these scenes that when the picture is over, you feel that somewhere in Crown Heights these girls’ lives are still going on.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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