Tough and heartbreaking, Jim McKay's "Our Song" examines the lives of three young African Americans in Crown Heights, a particularly depressed part of Brooklyn. But it's not what you'd call a 'hood movie, with such familiar tropes as drive-bys, Glocks held sideways and the lethal braggadocio of young men who've seen too much TV and haven't read enough books.
The three heroes of the film are female and fragile. Amid the chaos of shattered families, the three struggle toward . . . well, what? Toward survival and reasonable lives, I suppose, but the movie isn't a tale of an ordeal so much as a tale of coping. Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Joycelyn (Anna Simpson) and Maria (Melissa Martinez) just want to get by, get along, get through the day, get on with it.
Not easy. Only one has a father -- he doesn't live at home, however -- and one is pregnant by a boy who doesn't want her to get an abortion but doesn't want to marry her either (he evidently thinks that a baby is something like a hamster). All three face other uncertainties, too: their positions in a society of their peers, their relationship to a consumer culture that instructs them to want, want, want; their need to look and feel pretty. And, of course, that other thing: sophomore year of high school.
Only one organization provides them with discipline, gives them a chance to show responsibility, holds them truly accountable, and enjoys their utter respect: That's the Jackie Robinson High Steppers Band.
What a fabulous group this is! Where do I join? Or better yet, can I get my two kids, even though they're a bit old, to join up? I don't care if they don't want to. I don't care if one's a banker and the other's a college senior! I want them in that damn band!
It's band music with attitude, but if you watch its stylings without realizing the work that goes into it, you miss the point. Like all expressions of true freedom, it's made by the discipline of hard work and constant practice. It looks joyous but you don't get to the joyous part without doing the work part first. It's something these young people love, and it gives them a purpose and a creed.
And by the movie's end, it's also worked as a mechanism of fate: Of the three, the ones who remain High Steppers seem to be the ones who'll be all right. They've coped. They can do it. They can go on. The one who drops out -- well, that's a different story.
Technically, "Our Song" is close to a miracle. It is purposely undramatized, almost to the level of seeming like a documentary. Its strategy is to eschew the task of drama, which is to distinguish between the mundane and the germane; all events are equally weighted, from the casual delights of flirtation in a deli to a heartbreaking discussion between an unwed mother and her baby's father to a brutal suicide in the streets of the projects. It's an astonishing movie, with a real-life feel.
Our Song (97 minutes, at Visions Cinema Bistro) is rated R for profanity and sexual innuendo.