22 November 2010
Considering that I didn’t have any sex in high school, fears of pregnancy preoccupied me to an extent that might be considered bizarre. I was also obsessed with the dread of death and nuclear destruction — fears that, in comparison, now appear more rational than pregnancy. Who knows whether it was those after-school specials, young adult fiction, scaremongering filmstrips in health class, or the specter of those girls whose bellies grew alarmingly before they dropped out of 10th grade. For the 15-year-old version of me, teen pregnancy was a life-ender worthy of fretting about even if I’d never been sexually active. This makes Jim McKay’s “Our Song” all the more compelling to the current version of me, as it follows three 15-year-old girls during the end of a hot Brooklyn summer as they circle around such adult topics as pregnancy and educational ambition at the same time that they deal with the teenaged problems of friendship and growing apart. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film about housing-project kids that felt so open-ended, so truly interested in the subjectivities of the kids involved rather than eager to impose stereotypes — especially because it’s about girls of color, who seem to lend themselves far too easily to movie tropes for lazy screenwriters. Its open-endedness might ultimately be the film’s problem, too; it feels slightly aimless. Yet its eagerness to cast an eye on the lives of girls seems so original and generous that I’m willing to overlook its structural flaws.
Brief academic sidebar: “Our Song” reminds me of an article I found so influential in grad school — “Towanda’s Triumph” by the sociologist M. Patricia Fernández Kelly. Kelly wanted to know how it was possible that girls in Baltimore’s ghettos got pregnant and bore children at such early ages, considering that so many of them reject the notion when they are 12 or younger. “Only fools get pregnant,” a 12-year-old Towanda tells Kelly early on. “They be thinking they so smart but they is fools ’cause you don’t gain nothing by having a baby. I tell the other girls, Towanda’s smart, she will never get pregnant; never! Just wait and see.” Sure enough, though, by 14 Towanda was a mother, and by 17 she’d born a second child. Kelly fascinatingly showed that bringing babies to term and becoming mothers granted even a teenaged girl significant authority and status in her community — in fact, a degree of respect and full acceptance for young girls that was otherwise unattainable. No wonder those girls ignored sanctimonious middle-class ideas about educational uplift and family planning. “Our Song” follows in a similar fashion: rather than write middle-class versions of personal narratives onto the lives of underprivileged 15-year-olds, the filmmaker spins a tale that’s honest to the choices girls really make in those situations — and he refuses to disapprove of them.
Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Joy (Anna Simpson), and Maria (Melissa Martinez) are best friends and members of the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band in Crown Heights — truly the most exhilirating band you’ve ever seen perform. They’re also working at low-paying jobs and observing the world around them: their parents, older girls, the mystery of boys. Pregnancy is a major, but not defining, aspect of their lives: we learn early on that Maria is pregnant and that Lanisha had an abortion about a year earlier. Despite their close friendship with one another, however, it’s not clear that Lanisha has ever confessed this act, nor that she can help Maria wrestle with the problems associated with being a teenaged mother — not least of which is to tell her own harried, impoverished mother the news.
The film also shows us some crazily accurate scenes evoking vague emotions I haven’t experienced in twenty years, especially about the fragile nature of friendship among girls. There are the complex racial/ethnic issues that only make sense in the current-day United States, as when Lanisha begins teaching Maria how to speak Spanish so they can have a “secret” language to speak amongst themselves — it’s not just that that Lanisha is only half-Latina while Maria’s parents never taught her their (presumably) native language; it’s that this language knowledge seems to serve as a stand-in for Lanisha’s greater academic ambitions (i.e., her determination to start her sophomore year of high school, whereas Maria seems to feel her pregnancy demands that she drop out). Even more sneaky and unexpected is the girls’ slow realization that while they’ve been learning their secret language, Joy has slowly migrated to the company of two other black girls instead. Their disappointment is only partly registered; they don’t feel betrayed as such, because when you’re 15 that’s how fleeting friendship can be.
What we see in “Our Song,” then, is a realistic snapshot of the lives of disadvantaged young girls — and let’s face it, we don’t see this very often. As Leah Rozin points out in her recent NY Times article, mainstream American movies tend to ignore the poor except when relegating them to small indie movies or crime dramas, and those portrayals rarely want to capture something realistic. (It’s so true that British film, in contrast, discusses either the aristocracy or the working class. Their disinterest in the middle class is almost as bizarre as our obsession with it.) Maybe this film doesn’t amount to great filmic art according to my usual standards. But the house of film has many rooms, and I’m glad to see that at least in small indie films I can see the kind of sensitivity to the lives of girls that I don’t see anywhere else, even in the great filmic art of my hero Rahmin Bahrani.