As much a tribute to a determined public school teacher as it is an inspirational vehicle for young viewers, “Pressure Cooker” dutifully and unimaginatively follows a cluster of culinary arts students learning their craft in a northeast Philadelphia high school. Doc is the latest in a long, dull line of Yank nonfiction films that, designed with the best intentions, obediently follow the underdogs-overcoming-odds template. Regulars of Gordon Ramsay’s much more entertaining “Hell’s Kitchen” series will yawn, but enough fest auds will applaud to win distrib and cable favor.
Had they made their fairly gentle film before the Ramsay era, co-directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker might have created a slightly different impression in the way they center on no-nonsense teacher Wilma Stephenson and her hard-working students.
Perhaps Stephenson is outrageously tough in comparison with other teachers at Philly’s Frankford High School; this is what one of her students, Tyree Dudley, insists. But for viewers familiar with Ramsay’s weekly volcanic blasts as he pounds would-be exec chefs into shape on his show, “Pressure Cooker” has all the sharpness of Kraft cheese.
Grausman and Becker seem to have little idea of how to film in a working kitchen with many people preparing competing dishes. The filmmakers are more comfortable laying out the usual narrative frame focusing on three student characters — Dudley, Erica Gaither and Mali-born Fatoumata Dembele — as they progress through the year, hoping to earn culinary arts scholarships.
Despite the film’s clear interest in and sympathy for these fledgling chefs, it uncovers little of interest beyond such touching character details as Gaither helping to raise her blind younger sister and Dembele having to function in her home as the family cook while trying to maintain her high grade-point average. Much more could have been explored: How state-ranked football player Dudley, for instance, manages to juggle his success on the field with the demands of competitive cooking remains as unknown at the pic’s end as at its beginning.
The specific challenges posed by Stephenson in class, or in the tournaments against other schools, are only vaguely presented. Only later on, with the preparation of a certain kind of potato (cut and sliced just so, almost like a small objet d’art) does the viewer begin to appreciate the exacting standards the students must meet and consistently surpass.
The outcome, though heartwarming, is as uninspired as what came before, prompting the question that if sadder results had occurred, would they have remained in the film?
Vid lensing by Justin Schein and Leigh Iacobucci is serviceable, as is Becker’s editing.