Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Film Movement, a subscription DVD series with the tagline "A Declaration of Independents" offers
up a new film every month, with an added short subject. The idea is to provide a class venue for
titles that win awards at festivals, but perhaps are not picked up by majors or even given a run
on the arthouse circuits - that stay busy catering to the Amelie crowd.
The film for August 2003 is OT: Our Town, a DV docu about what used to be called Inner City
kids. It has some interesting characters, sociology both inspiring and depressing, and
just enough uplift to involve us emotionally.
Domiguez High, Compton is a school with a terrible reputation for
everything but its sports programs. In 2000, a pair of teachers decided to invest time and
effort in mounting an unfunded student production of Our Town with the hope of instilling
some feelings of pride and accomplishment in their students. Inertia, lack of interest and an
inability to relate to the play dog the show. We learn about the backgrounds of the various
kids, blacks and Latinos, who have volunteered to be actors. As the showdates grow close,
the play's importance to the teens rises.
OT: Our Town overcomes the cynic's first gripe: documentaries that focus on ethnic
social problems to guarantee feel-good audience emotions. It shows Dominguez High School for
what it is, a rat's nest of poverty where gunfire is heard in the night and cop cars drive up
and down the campus halls. It has to be impossible for a student to feel pride for this place.
Worse, what extracurricular activity money there is goes to the school's successful sports
programs that provide a possible success exit for star players. We see one. He's a happy 6' 7"
basketball player that we're told went straight from high school into the majors. Some success
The two teachers that initiate the play are obviously fighting an uphill battle. The school
gives them no backing and even refuses to allow the basketball court to be used as an auditorium. A
cast comes together (we don't see the selection process, always an ugly part of high school plays)
and the teachers use every strategy they know to raise interest in Thorton Wilder's
story of Grover's Corners, which is about as universal a play as can be found. Clips from the PBS
Hal Holbrook version are interspersed with the Compton teens trying to say the same dialogue
written for 1902 New England. The kids don't dig it.
The play as presented is no great shakes, but that's not the issue. Filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy
bears down on the actors as they learn (or don't learn) their lines, and deal with the stigma that
accompanies sincere effort in their teen society. A classmate expresses the basic attitude: anything
that has anything to do with Dominguez High, they want nothing to do with. Hand-drawn posters for the
play are vandalized.
The kids are a dramatic bunch. The actress playing the Stage Manager (Ebony Starr Norwood-Brown)
has a complicated home life, where two saintly older women (one just a babysitter-turned substitute
mother) lovingly care for a large brood of children from mostly absent parents. The Mexican-American
playing George Gibbs (Archie Posada) has a positive personality and comes from a home bursting
with religious imagery. 'Emily Webb' (Armia Robinson) is a rail-thin girl with a squeaky voice
and an inability to concentrate. Mr. Webb is a heavy-set, serious young man (Christopher Patterson)
who claims to be alienated from his father. And a vaguely rebellious Latin kid (Jose Perez) is a
depressive and talks about suicide a lot.
The doc covers rehearsal sessions and the ceaseless efforts of the two teachers to get the
play on its feet and inspire a minimum commitment from the students. One of them uses heavy
criticism followed by feel-good camaraderie to keep the group together, a gambit that works.
The kids eventually learn their lines. The attitudes and selfishness give way to the expected
solidarity once the showdates come and they have a real platform stage on which to perform; and
on show night, they of course all behave as if they were professional troopers from the start. Much of
the opening night crowd is the expected family and friends, and the outpouring of pride and
accomplishment are authentic and heartwarming. The show ends with a coda explaining how the
theater program at Dominguez has continued with funding, and that it's spelled success for
The doc is edited in what I'd call a hip-hop style. The cutting is fast but not too fast, with a few
exposure tricks and flash cuts popping in along with the street music score. It makes what's
shown easy to digest, and obscures what's not shown: how the casting was accomplished, what the
school administration had to say about an outside documentarian coming in, anything behind the scenes
with the teachers (we're given a few speeches) or why the kids joined up in the first place.
So here's the only problem with OT: Our Town. I've cut many shows about 'inspired' students
at various LAUSD school dramatic programs, even one grant-inspired turkey of a boondoggle that
emulated the movie Fame. Those 'educational programs' tended to attract kids that want to
be Stars, not kids with talent or an interest in the theater. Filmmaker
Kennedy has no problem getting inspirational-looking closeups of his Stars staring nobly or
plaintively out of frame ... these kids are often performing for his camera. Raised on
Television, they're naturals.
The kids in OT: Our Town are just in a play, but we still get the idea that a few now think
they're on the way toward great careers. One awkwardly sincere girl who can't find the exit for
her scene, announces she's going to be a Star. She's possibly kidding, but I think not.
The key to these kids is attention and official acknowledgment that they exist, which they
get precious little of. It's a lot for them to carve out their own purpose in life. And we can
tell that they know that this docu, not the play they're supposed to be in, is their big break.
Most of them are just too honest and
uncomplicated to play-act, but I cringe at all the dramatics that are being consciously put-on for
the benefit of attention. The beneficiaries of the movie are the filmmaker, the teachers (who earned
everything they get) and the exceptional student like Miss Norwood-Brown, who continued on to
college. If the rest of the cast gets an ego boost from their bit of fame, we can just hope that
some of them have the brains and character to do something with themselves.
I also worry about miraculously perfect feel-good shots like the late-night view of Chris Patterson
home with his dad hugging him, the dad he earlier talked about as being uncaring and absent. It's a
heart tug, but it's awfully convenient and pat. It's a sad thing to have to wonder if the filmmaker
was a fast-trigger genius to get that perfect shot of a perfect moment - or if it was staged.
Film Movement's DVD of OT: Our Town is excellently encoded and presented. The DV images are
well transfered (I'd guess from tape, not from film) and the sound is fine. Also presented on the
disc is a short subject, Border, from filmmaker Annette Solakoglu. It's an okay parable that
pulls in John Lennon's Imagine for a finale.
Another 'bonus footage' extra shows a later Dominguez student production attended by the 'past'
cast members of OT. There are no subs or closed captions, which is understandable.
The Film Movement is an interesting experiment in
movie distribution. I didn't find OT: Our Town for sale on Amazon, but it can be bought at
their website, where other past Film Movement releases
are available. This month, they have a Belgian Drama called Hop and they're promising an
upcoming title with Philip Seymour Hoffman. To watch the movie, one must first sit through a brief
promo for The Film Movement, something I'd be incensed at from a studio, but can easily tolerate from
this courageous little DVD company doing its best to make a go of things.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
OT: Our Town rates:
Supplements: added short subject, bonus footage.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 19, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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