Our Song

"Babies Having Babies" would be the inevitable label stuck on "Our Song" if writer-helmer Jim McKay's second dramatic feature were a trash-talk TV episode. Mercifully, it isn't -- though Jerry Springer's audience might recognize its characters all too well. Another finely observed, modestly scaled look at the current realities of low-income female adolescence, pic is similar in nearly all aspects to McKay's debut effort, "Girls Town."

With:
Lanisha Brown - Kerry Washington Joycelyn Clifton - Anna Simpson Maria Hernandez - Melissa Martinez Pilar Brown - Marlene Forte With: Ray Anthony Thomas, Rosalyn Coleman, Carmen Lopez, Tyrone Brown, Lorraine Berry, Natasha Frith, Iris Little Thomas, Kim Howard, Juan Romero Jr., the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band.

“Babies Having Babies” would be the inevitable label stuck on “Our Song” if writer-helmer Jim McKay’s second dramatic feature were a trash-talk TV episode. Mercifully, it isn’t — though Jerry Springer’s audience might recognize its characters all too well. Another finely observed, modestly scaled look at the current realities of low-income female adolescence, pic is similar in nearly all aspects to McKay’s debut effort, “Girls Town.” But that film had Lili Taylor, whose status as 1996 indie poster child gave it some small B.O. magnetism. Cast with unknowns, told without compromise or sensationalism, “Our Song” looks more like a broadcast and fest-circuit item than a viable theatrical risk for producing org Independent Film Channel.

Protags are three 15-to-16-year-old girls living in NYC’s Crown Heights. It’s summer, yet they’re locked into a rigorous rehearsal schedule for their school’s prize-winning marching band (“played” by the Jackie Robinson Steppers). This is just one of many — too many — responsibilities the girls must shoulder. With their parents jailed, absent or drastically overworked, they do most of the housework in their project apartments, and low-paying part-time jobs likewise drain their energy. Story starts with the dismaying news that the girls’ school will be closing immediately for asbestos removal. But worries about their academic future are soon displaced by more pressing concerns.

Foremost is the unhappy discovery that Maria (Melissa Martinez) is pregnant — for the second time — after a condom-free escapade with a classmate. She refuses to consider abortion, and things look grim, given her lack of a decent job, her mother’s likely reaction and the erstwhile “boyfriend’s” unhelpful attitude. Best friend Lanisha (Kerry Washington) remains loyal, but mutual pal Joy (Anna Simpson) distances herself from Maria, for reasons even she probably can’t define. Happiest granting star “interviews” to her bedroom mirror, Joy just doesn’t want to face this particular harsh reality. More supportive is Pilar (Marlene Forte), a bakery co-worker (and nominal fourth protagonist) who’s teaching bilingually challenged Maria to speak Spanish.

Tightly drawn screenplay maintains an engrossing focus on these young — yet in some ways prematurely aged — lives as they weigh the few choices at hand. In the end, there’s really no option but to go with the flow: Pic doesn’t need to spell out how race and economics leave Maria little maneuvering room. Fadeout consists of two long, lost-in-introspection shots, which provide ironic counterpoint stylistically and tonally to the dynamic editing just deployed on the marching band’s Labor Day parade appearance.

Variously experienced lead thesps deliver potent, focused, sympathetic turns, though (as in “Girls Town”) they seem older than intended. Support cast is likewise fine. If you’re looking for positive minority-male roles, however, look elsewhere — pic is critical, albeit not bitterly so, of its male characters, who are most notable for their absence. Well-handled tech package features crisp 16mm lensing of Crown Heights locations. Title refers to Maria’s favorite tune, the aptly wistful “Ooh Child,” heard here in several versions. Interestingly, that track also provided a signature sentiment for Jonathan Kaplan’s seminal teen drama “Over the Edge” 21 years ago.

Our Song

Production: An Independent Film Channel presentation, in association with Beech Hill Films and Journeyman Pictures, of a C-Hundred Film Corp. production. Produced by Jim McKay, Paul Mezey, Diana E. Williams. Executive producers, Caroline Kaplan, Jonathan Sehring, Michael Stipe. Co-producers, Alexa L. Fogel, Joseph Infantolino. Directed, written by Jim McKay.

With: Lanisha Brown - Kerry Washington Joycelyn Clifton - Anna Simpson Maria Hernandez - Melissa Martinez Pilar Brown - Marlene Forte With: Ray Anthony Thomas, Rosalyn Coleman, Carmen Lopez, Tyrone Brown, Lorraine Berry, Natasha Frith, Iris Little Thomas, Kim Howard, Juan Romero Jr., the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band.Camera (color, 16mm) Jim Denault; editor, Alex Hall; sound recordist, Jan McLaughlin; music supervisor, Julie Panebianco; costumes, Tiel Roman; associate producers, Tyrone Brown, Ashaki "Saki" Fenderson, Susannah Ludwig; casting, Alexa L. Fogel, Karen Gilman, Jane Lew. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2000. Running time: 95 MIN.

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