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August 25, 2003
Documentary: Look Who's In 'Town'
By David Ansen
For the past year the documentary "OT: Our Town" has been bowling over audiences at film festivals around the country. Now Scott Hamilton Kennedy's movie is finally being released to the public. It's been a banner year for documentaries at the box office – the record-breaking "Bowling for Columbine," "Spellbound," "Capturing the Friedmans" and "Winged Migration" have all been unexpected hits. "OT" deserves a place alongside them.
The film chronicles a high school production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." What makes this production special is that it's the first play in 20 years put on by the students of Dominguez High School in infamous Compton, Calif. It's a school where nothing matters but basketball, where all the students are African-American or Hispanic, where there is no money for the show, no stage in sight, and rehearsals have to be conducted in the cafeteria. How could the kids in this school, all too familiar with the sound of gunfire, possibly relate to Wilder's folksy New England period piece?
Kennedy intercuts scenes from the TV production starring Hal Holbrook and Robby Benson with the lives of these Compton teenagers. Unexpected connections begin to occur. Initially, the urban cast members find the goings-on in Grover's Corners as irrelevant as a picnic on the moon. Then, prodded by teacher-directors Catherine Borek (the filmmaker's girlfriend) and Karen Greene, they slowly begin to make the play their own, customizing it with music, attitude and inner-city soul. Watching these scared, alienated kids turn into a family as the days unfold is a moving demonstration of the power of art. But can they pull it off, when everyone expects them to fail? The movie takes us up to that fateful night of the performance, smashing the gangsta stereotypes of Compton along the way.
Like most documentaries, "OT" isn't getting a wide release. Initially: It opened last Friday in six cities. But if you don't happen to live in one of these burgs, you can still see it without waiting. It's being distributed by a new company called Film Movement, a movie club that's releasing 12 independent and foreign films a year, half of which will play in theaters. All of them will be sent on DVD to members at the same time they are released (filmmovement.com). It's a new concept in distribution, designed to reach the ordinary, neglected movie lover. "OT: Our Town," an underdog tale par excellence, seems perfectly matched to its purpose.
--David Ansen/ Newsweek - Review
August 15, 2003
Thornton Wilder Passes a Tough High School Test
By A. O. SCOTT
Anyone who has attended high school has no doubt heard well-intentioned bromides about the universality of great literature, something most teachers are content to assert without bothering to prove. But the value of art can be realized only by being tested.
A few years ago Catherine Borek and Karen Greene, two English teachers at Dominguez High School in the tough Southern California city of Compton, decided to test themselves, their students and Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," reputedly the most frequently staged play in the American repertory and a staple of the secondary school curriculum. The results of their experiment are on display in "OT: Our Town," Scott Hamilton Kennedy's modest, moving documentary. It opens today in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and New Orleans.
As far as anyone knew, it had been at least 20 years since a play had been performed at Dominguez, where, some of the students interviewed in the film say, the rituals of spring term include homecoming, senior prom and pregraduation riots. The school is a local basketball power with a reputation for gang activity, but the members of the "Our Town" cast are neither outlaws nor athletes. Their ambitions, anxieties and dreams are those of high school students anywhere, and they are seriously concerned with the world's perceptions of them. Their natural pride is edged with defensiveness about being young Mexican- and African-Americans from a place associated, if it is thought of at all, with Crips, Bloods and gangster rap.
A few of them — an outspoken girl named Ebony, who plays the Stage Manager, and a moody boy named Jose, who plays Wilder's town drunk — share life stories of abandonment, suicide and parental waywardness. Others are more reticent, but as opening night draws near we observe the relationships between the young people and their teachers, especially Ms. Borek, a tough, businesslike young woman (as well as the filmmaker's girlfriend).
At first "Our Town," with its nostalgia for the simple verities of a long-vanished (if not always imaginary) New England, seems completely alien to them. Clips from a 1977 televised version with Hal Holbrook as the avuncular Yankee Stage Manager, only emphasize the distance between Compton and Grover's Corners. The students, however, resist Ms. Borek's efforts to bring the play closer to the realities of their own lives, worrying that they will end up presenting stereotypes of themselves.
In the end, though, they bring a lot of themselves to Wilder's text, which in turn reveals itself to them. Mr. Kennedy's discreet inquiry into their offstage lives and into the ethos of their town follows the structure of the play, in which the three acts are devoted to daily life, love and marriage, and death.
Mr. Kennedy observes his subjects with sympathy and tact, and he does the students the courtesy of allowing them to explain themselves, which they do with candor, heart and humor. At the end, when they have created a vibrant new theater program for their school, their sense of triumph is infectious. " 'Our Town' Is Ghetto!" one of them exults. Thornton Wilder, wherever he is, would understand and take it as a compliment.
--A. O. Scott/ The New York Times - Review
August 22, 2003
A staging ground for hope in Compton
By Ashlea Deahl
In his first feature-length documentary, ''OT: Our Town,'' director Scott Hamilton Kennedy finally gives us a reason to feel warm and fuzzy about Compton, Calif. It's not an easy feat.
Kennedy takes cameras to the seedy Los Angeles suburb's Dominguez High School, where gunshots echo in the hallways, gangstas make up the in crowd, and basketball is worshiped above any other extracurricular activity, especially theater. Until 2000, the school hadn't put on a play in 20 years. Then an English teacher, Catherine Borek, mounted a production of ''Our Town'' -- the classic (translation: boring) Thornton Wilder play that would make most high school kids cringe in their chinos.
Kennedy warmly portrays Borek's cast of strong-willed students and their struggle to modernize the script. While it's fascinating to watch Borek transform the play from a fledgling after-school activity to a sold-out success, the real joy is in watching the smart, stubborn Dominguez students shatter the stereotypes of who Compton kids are.
Kennedy's close-up shots of the teens are so intimate that we can see their puberty-stricken pores. It's in these simple moments -- when he probes them about life in Compton -- that he truly reveals their depth as soul-searching, independent young adults.
From the gregarious Jackie Oliver, who gushes about Justin Timberlake and primps for the prom, to the brooding Jose Valentin Perez, who speaks candidly about suicide attempts, Kennedy doesn't have to work hard to make these teens lovable. Yet he barely skims the surface of their personalities, leaving us thirsty for more of what makes them shine amid the destructive backdrop of their city.
The documentary opens quietly, with drab footage of the 1977 television production of ''Our Town,'' starring a jaundiced-looking Hal Holbrook. As Holbrook introduces the pristine town of Grover's Corners, N.H., Kennedy cuts to shots of Compton, where sirens blare, cars bounce, and riots mark a rite of passage for some Dominguez High students.
Kennedy weaves the '70s TV version of ''Our Town'' throughout the documentary, segueing effortlessly from old to new, from Grover's Corners to Compton, from farm-raised to city-raised. His shots are rough at times, unsure of where to go next, and the heart of the film is slow to materialize. But when it does, watch out.
The film moves quickly, but Kennedy knows when to breathe, slowing scenes down with captivating music -- Etta James's ''At Last'' adds affection to any film -- and suspenseful moments.
At one point we wonder whether the show will go on, and whether Borek's attempt to change a small part of Compton life is futile.
By the end of the film, the cast is throwing hand signs for ''Our Town'' as if it were a part of their daily slang. And we're left with the realization that there's more than a little hope coming straight outta Compton.
--Ashlea Deahl/ The Boston Globe - Review