I’ve certainly seen my share of “coming of age” and “troubled teen” indies since I started writing these pieces about movies.
I’d say in quality Our Song strikes me as good enough to rank somewhere in the top half of such movies I’ve seen. Yet it really didn’t have much of an emotional impact on me. I stayed somewhat interested in it the whole way, but there was nothing that hit me at a deep level.
The movie is about three black and Puerto Rican high school girls in the Crown Heights ghetto of Brooklyn. It is done in a naturalistic, realistic style. It’s not too far from feeling like a documentary; far more than with most movies you can picture these folks as real people.
It’s one of those movies that doesn’t have a conventional plot, but instead just lets us observe a few people’s lives for a certain amount of time and then ends.
One thing I appreciate about the film is that the setting is neither ignored nor allowed to dominate. Broken homes are the rule rather than the exception, a peripheral character is reported to have been jailed for selling drugs, there are sounds in the background on one or more occasions that might be gunshots, and there are reminders of the poverty of the neighborhood such as their school being closed due to asbestos and an apparent prevalence of asthma. Yet it’s not really that stuff that’s most prominent in the storyline, most on these characters’ minds and in their conversations.
It’s more like that’s just the world they live in and the world they’re used to. So the film doesn’t deny how things are in a neighborhood like that, but it reflects the reality that even in that type of area, most people go through most days without being shot, being thrown in jail for selling crack, being beaten up or raped by gang members, shooting up heroin, etc.
So to a significant extent, there’s a universality to these teenagers’ experiences and concerns. They talk about boys and who likes whom, they go to parties, they talk about clothes, they try to get jobs and wonder about their future, etc.
The one more stereotypical ghetto issue that is more central to the movie is teen pregnancy. Two of these three girls are or have been pregnant, and they have classmates who are as well. They react to getting pregnant when you’re 13, 14, 15, whatever, as a big deal, but not as something at all unusual. Because it isn’t. When one character laments that the school they’re being transferred to doesn’t even have a day care, it’s a reminder of just how “normal” it is in certain pockets of society for schoolkids to have babies to take care of.
But when I think about the non-sensationalist approach of this movie, it’s really in favorable contrast with something like Havoc, which is all about drugs and sex and gangs and crime. All Over Me, Paranoid Park, and Hurricane Streets, among others, though more realistic and less lame than Havoc, also are focused on crime and shocking stuff, rather than day-to-day life.
This one’s more like, say, In Between Days, though less minimalist in style and certainly more watchable.
I’ve commented that one of the worthwhile things about watching so many foreign films is I get to see and maybe gain a little insight into people who live in circumstances very different from what I’ve experienced, and have very different values, different worldviews, etc. But that can be true of a movie like this as well. This is nearly as foreign to my life as an Israeli kibbutz or a seamy neighborhood in Manila.
And that’s one of the most valuable things about this film. It records for posterity what it was like growing up in Crown Heights and neighborhoods like it in this historical period.
So Our Song is a good movie, one that I would recommend to at least some degree. Yet for whatever reason it is not one that reached me emotionally as much as I might have expected.