When marching-band director Tyrone Brown asks his Jackie Robinson Steppers, "Are you motivated?" he's not so much inquiring as presenting a challenge. It's the middle of a sweltering summer in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, where 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 out on a hot asphalt parking lot are serious business. You'll see no smiles but, rather, the intense sobriety of hungry hunters. There's stiff competition ahead.
Writer/director Jim McKay (Girls Town, R.E.M.'s Tourfilm) really gets this vibe, starting off his latest feature, Our Song, with the maneuvers of the Steppers. A bravura spectacle of thundering drums, swinging brass and masterful editing (by Alex Hall), the opening segment immerses us in this world posthaste, as if we're literally in the band. In fact, this spirit of community pervades the credits; the project has the longest listing of names after the card "A film by" than perhaps has ever been seen. It's a nice dose of egalitarianism right from the get-go.
After that, we swoop right into our trio of young leading ladies, one Lanisha Brown (Kerry Washington), one Joycelyn Clifton (Anna Simpson) and one Maria Hernandez (Melissa Martinez). Their conversation in the halls of their school 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 (limo with a pool in it, champagne fountain in Manhattan and hot-air balloon, respectively), 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, there's Eleanor (Kim Howard), whose son Samson (Juan Romero Jr.) lacks a father now that Eleanor's man Ziggy has been locked up for selling marijuana. Despair creeps in even further as the girls share with their friend the woe of having their school demolished (it's just been announced that it's thick with asbestos), which means in the fall they'll be scattered all over the place on buses and trains as they make their commutes to other schools. Still, it's every girl for herself in a way, as Eleanor reflects to herself and obsesses, "You do the best you can with your baby -- why they have to fuck with you like this?"
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 on their own experiences as teenage girls, but whatever the case, they're all quite good actresses, sending us very few clinkers or implausible moments. Their opaque approach to the material -- you can't see through them because there's nothing artificial to see through -- may not suit other roles, but here it works wonderfully. 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 all smooching bad boys at a party with dancehall reggae blasting, the realism is so effective it feels perilously close to eavesdropping.
It's actually rather uncomfortable at times to behold such young people grappling with issues that would bewilder the average adult -- rotten pay, language gaps, disrespectful brats at the table. For this reason, however, the performances of the girls' complex parents (two single moms and a couple) are even more impressive. One walks away from Our Song feeling a kinship with Lanisha's folks, Pilar and Carl Brown (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." When he redeems himself later, sharing with his daughter the particulars of a Nigerian drum apprenticeship, one feels even more a part of the family.
It's equally impressive to watch the mothers of Joycelyn and Maria in action. Dawn Clifton (Rosalyn Coleman) has a good daughter, but there's a poignancy to their quiet moments together -- as when Joy explains how much she likes watching scary movies with her mom -- that's not only believable, it feels, as a preparation for the horrors of the world, utterly sensible. 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 autumn: "You think the Bronx is around the corner? What are you gonna take, a spaceship?"
It's moments such as these that give Our Song its edge, helping it veer out of the inescapable traps of cheap melodrama. Whether we're witnessing Joy stumbling through an assessment of shoplifting ("What'd you took?") or declaiming Western medicine ("I was born in the cesarean section of the hospital -- that's why I'm so fucked up!"), the sorrow and confusion are given a flawed but relatable voice. McKay has a gift for working with actors, and it shows.
Where the movie may lag, for some, is in its somewhat meandering storyline, which doesn't exactly take pains to keep a viewer who gets the main theme (teenage girlhood in the city is rough) from drifting a little. By the time one of the more conventionally "entertaining" scenes rolls around (involving a defense of vegetarianism and a white boy who -- wonders! -- speaks Spanish), the movie has already made its points, and the rest is coasting. Still, even after it's over, Our Song sticks with you. Reflecting on it, one truly feels the powerful sense of challenges overcome.