Sunday, December 5, 2010

Documentary Recommendation/Review: PRESSURE COOKER

As I've mentioned before, I'm a serious film fan. And when I find must-see material, I feel the need to share. I recently saw the documentary Pressure Cooker, and it was so good--funny and sad and very inspirational--that I'm compelled to spread the word about it!

The documentary deals with a group of amazing Philadelphia teens and their incredibly admirable teacher. Here's the trailer if you'd like to check it out:

And now for my review...

PRESSURE COOKER (2008; released on DVD in April 2010)

Wilma Stephenson is a complex woman. Known as Mrs. Stephenson at Frankford High School in northeast Philadelphia—where students must pass through a metal detector before strolling into homeroom—she’s a sixty-something culinary arts teacher and resident tough cookie who will berate her students one minute and hug them the next.

At first glance, Stephenson may come off as harsh, shrill, and demanding. She may appear that way at second glance, too. She runs after a student who dares to slam the door on his way out of her classroom, and boldly sets him straight in the hallway while an awed but not surprised silence falls over the rest of the class. Stephenson gruffly demands that a student abandon his iPod, and she has no qualms about turning to the camera after a run-in with a student and saying, “I can’t stand him.”

But Stephenson’s chastising is done with a higher purpose in mind. She demands respect. Her brash methods of correction are accepted by the majority of her students, and the ones who reject it will most likely fall away—as Stephenson warns her class on the first day of their senior year. It’s clear from the beginning of Pressure Cooker that Stephenson has a reputation at Frankford High. She knows it, and is rightfully proud. “How many of you have heard of me?” she asks. “Whatever you’ve heard…I’m five hundred times worse.”

Or better.

Stephenson desperately wants her students to succeed, and she has a history of making this happen. During her forty years as a teacher, she has helped students earn over three million dollars in scholarships.

Her goal is to get her students out of northeast Philly through a culinary arts college scholarship, and she doesn’t care if she has to yell, push, shove, and hurt feelings to make it happen. She sets high expectations, and challenges the teens to reach them. She encourages her students to imagine where they can go instead of dwell on where they are—because she doesn’t want them to get stuck there. “Get your brains upscale,” she says, “in a nice restaurant.”

In addition to a college education, a “nice restaurant” is what these students strive for—to work in one, and to eventually buy and run their own. There is even hopeful talk of some of the kids opening a restaurant together.

Pressure Cooker focuses on three of these teens: Tyree, a football player and member of the cheerleading squad with a hilariously precocious little sister; Fatoumata, an African immigrant and straight-A student struggling with the conflict between her religious family and American culture; and Erica, a cheerleader who cares for her disabled younger sister while doing everything she can to earn a college scholarship.

Erica’s sister is physically and visually handicapped, and Erica is admirably devoted to her; however, the strain of being a caretaker has affected Erica adversely in the form of anxiety and depression. Although all of Erica’s hard work is for the future benefit of herself and her family, she knows that her obligations might weigh her down. She fears being held back, and wants to “fly,” as her father says, out of Philly.

Erica carries a heavy weight with maturity and dignity. When explaining the condition that took her sister’s sight, she mentions that doctors had expected her sister to be completely blind by age five. Fortunately, that did not happen, and her sister has retained limited vision. “That’s a blessing,” Erica says. This simple statement—and many others in Pressure Cooker—are touching and heart-wrenching, and might make you count your own blessings.

It’s impossible not to root for the students, especially during a one-day scholarship competition at the end of the school year. The competition is judged by Philadelphia’s top chefs, and it’s painfully nerve-wracking for everyone. It is during this competition that the softer side of Mrs. Stephenson emerges—when she kisses her class members before they enter a private room to be judged, while she’s anxiously waiting for them to finish, and especially when a judge speaks sternly to the students. Stephenson becomes a mother bear, calmly but firmly criticizing the judge for her tone, and saying that the judge is being “mean” to the kids.

Mean? Is this the same woman who runs her culinary arts course like an impatient drill sergeant, who calls an offending student a “low-life punk,” and who—when holding a sandwich made in her class—screams at the top of her lungs because a pickle isn’t promptly delivered? “Some. Body. Get. The Pickle!” she says.

But when Stephenson shouts and criticizes, it isn’t mean—it’s just the way people interact in a family, and a family is exactly what she and her students are. This becomes clear as Pressure Cooker progresses, but crystallizes during the competition and the interaction between Stephenson and the judge. Stephenson sees an outsider overstepping bounds, and she defends her family like any loving mother would.

Directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, the award-winning Pressure Cooker is serious, funny, sad, joyous, powerful, emotional, inspirational, and highly engaging. It is a glimpse into that moment in young people’s lives during which they can go down a good or bad road—one that will alter their futures forever. Fortunately for the students at Frankford High, they have the wonderful Mrs. Stephenson to point them in the right direction.