Salvation through mounting a play, that hoary Hollywood chestnut already stale when Andy Hardy chirped “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!,” gets a surprising real-life update in the extraordinary docu “OT: Our Town.” Pic presents a complexly layered tale of two cities: the fictional Grover’s Corners, N.H., of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic, and the highly nonfictional Compton, Calif., home of gangsta rap. Culture clash alone makes pic a natural for fests and TV outlets, but example of the educational and social value of theater, as well as the density and richness of the overlapping voices, help “OT” take on the patina of instant classic.
The ground for pic’s pedagogical miracle couldn’t have been more infertile. The Dominguez High School student body consists of an explosive mix of black and Hispanic youths who hold a dismal view of their school, each other, themselves and their futures. The graduating class is the smallest ever, basketball ranking as the sole field of endeavor anyone cares about. No one has bothered to try to produce a school play in 20 years and, in any case, the facility has no stage, no lights, no sound system, no costumes and no budget. Moreover, the story selected by the two ersatz drama teachers, Catherine Borek and Karen Greene, is set a century ago, and none of the reluctant thesps can even remotely relate to it at first.
Docu chronicles the six-and-a-half-week countdown to opening night. Helmer Scott Hamilton Kennedy interweaves B&W footage of a 1977 TV version of “Our Town” with both the student presentation of the play and their actual life circumstances, so that Hal Holbrook’s “stage manager” persona begins lines of dialogue that Compton’s female counterpart, the striking Ebony Starr Norwood-Brown, echoes or completes, then offstage goes on to talk about her own hometown.
Pic follows the structure of Wilder’s drama in dividing teens’ lives and experiences into the play’s three acts. Thus Act III, Death, leads the kids to an eerie onstage rendition of same, and then segues offstage into one kid’s weary admission that he’s had 15 people die on him (“My best friend hung himself,” he says.).
At the same time, the evolving drama of the amateur, crisis-strewn production creates its own tensions, internal structure and time frame. Pic constantly surprises. The stage elements introduced early on — props, costumes, readings — in no way prepare one for the impact of how inventively all facets work together in the actual performance of the play.
Kennedy’s camera empowers his subjects: It enables them to narrate their lives with an unquestioned authority, which makes the changes in the way they see themselves and relate to one another, caused by their involvement in the play, appear startlingly possible.
Sheer dumb luck (a decision to film girlfriend Borek’s pet project) put Kennedy in the right place at the right time, but it’s pure filmmaking savvy that so compellingly re-creates the excitement of that place and time.
Video lensing has a raw immediacy that adds to the docu’s deliberately cultivated work-in-progress flavor.