Our Song Movie Review
Three close friends, Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Maria (Melissa Martinez) and Jocelyn (Anna Simpson), listen to their favorite song on the radio ("Ooh, child... things are gonna get easier... we'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun") and wonder what the future has in store. As they go through their routines of shoplifting, flirting, grabbing a slice, or making plans to catch a movie, their relationships inevitably change as young friendships always do. McKay is well serviced by superb cinematographer Jim Denault (Boys Don't Cry), who knows how to frame subtle moments with unobtrusive grace.
Clearly going for realism, McKay's script struggles to have it both ways. Blessed with young actors who give unforced, natural performances, they're stuck in after school special scenarios like a surprise pregnancy or selfishly turning your back on your friends. No matter how many hand-held shots are tossed in, there's too much emphasis on dramatic structure. A tragic third act suicide (predicted by the three kids in advance, but not appearing in the way you might expect) reveals the writer's hand, breaking the illusion that we're bearing witness to reality. This is a movie.
Also, a slap on the wrist for McKay and his editor Alex Hall for falling into that annoying Dancer in the Dark syndrome of presenting a dance/musical performance in distracting fragments. The three girls are part of the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band, an amazing ensemble of urban kids who bring bravado and panache to their hardcore drum and brass magic. They don't just play music, they live it, blasting off with their bodies atwirl as they march down Flatbush Avenue. It's a glorious sight, but we're never given enough time to take it in.
The absence of master shots and infuriating cuts every four seconds never allow the viewer ample opportunity to sit back and enjoy the performance. Too many cinema tricks get in the way. In Robert Altman's The Player, Fred Ward bitches about how movies have become simply "cut, cut, cut", referring to studio released music video claptrap like Armageddon and Con Air. Our Song proves that mentality has trickled down into the indie circuit as well. McKay seems to have had so much good material to choose from that he decided to include everything. C'mon, man -- I'm with you! I like your style! Give me a handful of your meaningful images, and save the rest for the DVD specials!
For all that bitching, how many flicks do you see which dwell on participation in a marching band? Or actually have honest-to-goodness communication between parents and children where one isn't neatly pigeonholed as the bad guy? How about showing urban blacks and Latinos who aren't capping each other? McKay's Our Song is good enough that you wish it were stronger. Maybe he'll go back and make a keen, observational documentary about the band -- I just hope he'll hang back a little and trust his admirable performers to do some of the work for him.
They sing their song.