Road to finding a sense of self

Review: Three high school girlfriends in a superb `Our Song' discover that growing up sometimes involves growing apart.

September 21, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Our Song takes you by surprise: Everyone should discover its robust poignance for themselves.

The movie records a series of conversations and casual encounters among three teen-age girlfriends in Crown Heights, Brooklyn during the fading weeks of summer. Every now and then, it gets an adrenaline charge from glimpses of the 63-member Jackie Robinson Steppers, their super-syncopated marching band.

But the girls' chatter and silences are what give the movie its sinuous, poetic development. The actors generate a marrow-deep rapport. Their fervid emotions and complex insights stand up to the scintillating audio-visual spectacle of the Steppers.

The band gives them a focus for their energy and desire. But Our Song is not merely a story of high-stepping release from youthful deprivation and misfortune. This picture evokes qualities of adolescence that have eluded the lenses of filmmakers less perceptive than writer-director Jim McKay.

The heroines are 15- and 16-year-old near-adults who are in the middle of working out identities for themselves. The good student and gifted drummer Lanisha (Kerry Washington); the deep-feeling, heavy-spirited Maria (Melissa Martinez); and the practical-minded Joycelyn (Anna Simpson) peerlessly express the unpredictable ebb and flow of friendship and group spirit at a volatile stage of life.

Few films have captured as surely as this one the elusive emotions of pals who drift together and apart.

McKay does something astonishingly difficult with offhand ease. He creates a movie that starts in media res, and then keeps jumping ahead so that we always feel in the middle of things, never at the start of a self-conscious narrative. Lanisha sees Maria as her good friend; she teaches her Spanish so they can use it as a private language. Maria discovers she's pregnant. Joycelyn realizes that the other two are more simpatico and begins going around with a more glamorous and carefree group of gals.

The relationships

Out of this simple core McKay spins a parabola of relationships. It encompasses the girls' parents and boyfriends, their band leader and advisers, and their relationship to the future. We never lose sympathy for Maria and Joycelyn, even when their actions are disappointing, or curtail their prospects. We respect their right to find, through trial and error, what's right for them.

Although Maria chafes at the way her mom treats her as a mother-in-training, we believe her when she says she can't conceive of aborting or giving away her baby. Joycelyn finds so little attention at home -- to get her mother to notice her, she practically has to flirt with her -- we understand why working at a good store, buying good things, and someday owning an even slicker store is the present height of her ambition.

Lanisha, who maintains strong connections to both of her divorced parents -- her jazz-loving father and straight-talking mother -- has the makings of an urban heroine. But Lanisha also is a heartbreaker. Maria's plight, Joycelyn's growing coolness and the random tragedies that surround them in the streets keep clouding her clear and hopeful gaze.

At one point, we discover that a fourth girl whom we've met only in passing has jumped from a high window with her little boy in her arms. Each girl reacts mournfully, in her fashion. But Lanisha brings the pathos home with her. When she momentarily breaks down, McKay and Washington nail better than any other director-actor team in recent memory how the defeats and sorrows around us can afflict the soul.

Matter-of-fact

Throughout, the movie is superbly matter-of-fact in depicting subjects as different as the emotional cluelessness of proudly footloose teen-age boys, the level of ominous and explosive noise that the characters learn to live with, or the inability of the most well-meaning social counselors to break through die-hard family traditions.

The movie's triumph is that we experience the ending, in which the three girls go mostly separate ways, not as a defeat but as a transition still open to possibilities.

The signature song in Our Song is "Ooh Child." Each time we hear the lyrics' list of hopes -- that some day, our heads will be "much lighter," that "we'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun" on a day when the world "is much brighter" -- it registers as a secular prayer, sweet in its simplicity, devastating in its ache for better times.

Our Song

Starring Kerry Washington, Anna Simpson and Melissa Martinez

Directed by Jim McKay

Unrated

Released by IFC Films

Running time 96 minutes

Sun score ****

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