Girls in the Hood

The nation's critics are almost universally declaring Our Song as a small masterpiece, although frankly, I'm not sure they're hailing the film itself so much as what the film represents. This is the kind of movie that comes along too rarely, a splendidly acted, affecting, non-condescending look at the lives of young girls in the inner city. As such, one is certainly tempted to give it a free pass, but to do so would require overlooking considerable flaws.

First, the good stuff. The performances of the three young leads—Kerry Washington, Anna Simpson and Melissa Martinez—are a marvel. With wildly varying degrees of experience (Washington recently shot to fame among the TRL set with her appearance in Save the Last Dance; Simpson has never acted before; Martinez's experience falls somewhere between the two), the three turn in performances so naturalistic that if you didn't know better, you could easily take the picture for a documentary. They bring life to the film's sometimes clunky dialogue, and it's a tribute to these young performers that they manage to carry the picture through most of its rough patches.

If you're not a nonwhite teenage girl struggling to get by on the mean streets of postmillennial Crown Heights, New York, you won't be able to say how accurately the film captures their lives. But it certainly feels like it comes from a real place, one where kids do stupid, stupid things—sex without condoms, getting knocked up at 15, etc.—and nobody, not even the parents, seems terribly blown out about it. Where two girls hear a noise that's quite possibly gunfire and barely pause in their gossip. Where schools are closed because the air is thick with asbestos and kids have to travel so far to their new school that you can hardly blame them for dropping out. But the film captures the joy amid the horror, the affectionate sassing, the clumsy flirting, the sweetly childish pleasures of girls on the cusp of womanhood.

Director Jim McKay clearly loves these girls and the small world they inhabit. While that's commendable, it's also the source of most of the film's problems. McKay allows many scenes to drag on long after the action has ended, leaving characters doing absolutely nothing for what seems like two or three minutes at a stretch. A couple of scenes at picture's end are especially excruciating in this regard, sending you out of the theater with a bad taste in your mouth. He's apparently laboring under the delusion that with each passing second, the meaning of what we've just seen is sinking in deeper; in truth, we're just waiting for the movie to start again.

Our Songis a worthwhile film, a lovingly made film, a film on the side of the angels. But it's not a great film, and the ways in which it is not come perilously close to sinking it.

Our Song was written, directed and produced by Jim McKay; and stars Kerry Washington, Anna Simpson and Melissa Martinez. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Plaza, Santa Ana.

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