Pressure Cooker (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Three high school students (Tyree Dudley, Erica Gaither, Fatoumata Dembele), under the passionate culinary arts teacher Wilma Stephenson’s guidance, worked their hardest to get scholarships for culinary arts college. I loved that this documentary focused on people who happened to be from a poor neighborhood but that didn’t stop them from trying to reach for their dreams. I admired the three former high school students because they had challenges outside the culinary school–Tyree and football, Erica and her handicapped sister, and Fatoumata being an immigrant from Africa–yet, strangely enough, I found that their respective challenges was what made them stronger. Out of the three, I could relate with Fatoumata the most because, growing up in another country and moving to America, I agreed with her outlook about America and its opportunities. Every time she talked about how thankful she was about immigrating to this country, I couldn’t help but feel moved. But the element that I found most interesting about this documentary was Stephenson’s relationship with her students. Even though she constantly yelled and screamed at them in the kitchen, it was easy to tell that she did those things out of love. She knew she needed to push the kids to doing their absolute hardest so they could get a scholarship. But outside of the kitchen, it seemed like she was a different person. She was still sassy but very approachable. I don’t know any teacher who would push his or her students to go to prom because “it’s a once in a lifetime thing” and even take them shopping for clothes. She didn’t just care for her students. She loved them in a such a way where she was willing to be a parent and that earned her respect. This documentary was not only inspiring and touching, it was also suspenseful. The climax of the film was when the class had to cook as the judges looked over their shoulders and sometimes made suggestions on how they could improve their skills. It was scary because so much was at stake and a little slip-up could ruin their chances of getting a scholarship they desperately needed. I was elated after watching “Pressure Cooker,” directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, because it was exactly the kind of movie I needed to see two days before taking my MCAT. It made me feel like anything was possible just as long as you invest the time to do the work and let your passion assist you during the most challenging times.
Step Up (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
There’s something about dance movies that initially repel me from watching them, but when I actually give them a chance I can’t help but get engaged. “Step Up,” directed by Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses,” “The Proposal”), tells the story of Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) who gets community service for vandalizing the props of a school for the arts (along with two of his friends–Damaine Radcliff and De’Shawn Washington). Initially assigned to mop the floors, take out the garbage and fix knickknacks, he decides to help out a girl (Jenna Dewan) named Nora for her Senior project after her partner gets a sprained ankle. What initially starts out to be a typical dance movie becomes a story about lower class people striving to be something so much more. I noticed it change gears somewhere in the middle and I liked it that much more. I like the fact that instead of the students from the school making fun of others outside of their bubble, it’s the people from the outside who have prejudice toward the students. Typically, it’s shown as the other way around so I found that to be refreshing. I thought it was also a good move by the movie to recognize that most of the students in the art school are not rich, like most college students, in fact, they’re on financial aid or scholarships and they have to work their butt off to earn their place. I couldn’t be any more wrong when I thought that this was just going to be another one of those movies that glorify dancing and being “gangster” and nothing else. It’s actually pretty thoughtful and it presented characters going through pivotal moments in their lives. I also enjoyed watching the supporting characters such as Mario as an aspiring musician/DJ, Drew Sidora as Dewan’s energetic friend and Rachel Griffiths as the art school’s director. Overall, I liked “Step Up” because it surpassed my expectations and it made me want to, strangely enough, dance.
American Teen (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The true rating I would give this film is three-and-a-half out of four stars (if I did half-stars), but I decided to round up because watching it made me feel like I was back in high school: the drama and the emptiness, the highs and the lows. I found bits of myself with all of the subjects (some more than others) and it made me reflect on who I was in high school and who I am now. The person I could identify with the most is Hannah Bailey (the rebel) not just because she’s into movies but also the fact that she considers herself to be an “in-between” pertaining to the high school spectrum that ranges from ubergeekdom to uberpopulardom. Whenever she’s on camera she truly shines because she offers something refreshing: while the rest of the subjects, more or less, are most concerned about getting into a specific college or feeling peer pressure of belonging in a group, Hannah wants to get out of Indiana as soon as possible and move to San Francisco because she’s so suffocated by both where she lives and who she’s surrounded by (and their ideals). Jake Tusing (the geek/loner) is interesting for me to watch because he’s so socially awkward (that table scene cracked me up so much!) and I feel bad whenever he puts himself down. It irks me whenever someone says a mean comment directed at him (joking or otherwise) but he just brushes it off by agreeing with them. He needs to learn that he can still be a great person while at the same time not letting certain people get away with certain things. As for Colin Clemens (the jock), even though I didn’t participate in competitive sports, I can relate with him because he wants to go to college but his family do not have enough income to pay off the tuition (not to mention I can get really competitive and I know how it’s like to lose once in a while). He needs a basketball scholarship to pursue an education or else he has no choice but to go to military school. I found it very easy to identify with him because I hate seeing people who want to spread their wings but unable to do so because of pecuniary matters. As for Megan Krizmanich (the queen bee), she has her uberbitch moments but she’s far from a monster. I consider her a textbook definition of a traumatized individual hiding behind a false strong front. She reminded me of myself back in high school when I would easily get angry over the silliest things, when in reality, it was more about my own self-esteem rather than people’s behavior that I don’t agree with. Last but not least, Mitch Reinholt (the heartthrob) is another basketball jock and best friends with Colin. He’s a genuinely good person but he succumbs so easily to peer pressure. I wanted to shake him so badly and tell him that in order for him to be truly happy, he should do whatever he feels is right and ignore what everyone else says. Ultimately, the five subjects are admirable and flawed in their own ways. Nanette Burstein, writer and director, paints her audiences a fairly accurate portrait of how it’s like to be a high schooler in America. If the middle portion of the film had been more daring and focused instead of simply exploring what’s on the outside, this would’ve been a stronger. (It did explore what’s underneath at some points but it didn’t do it enough.) Even though one may not agree with stereotypes, it’s undeniable that these people do exist and it’s important for one to look beyond what’s on the surface.