A Movie That Harnesses a Teen's Energy
`Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.' provides a rough and raw look at inner-city life and the pursuit of happiness
NEW YORK — THERE are two items of special interest in the credits of "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," the new movie written, directed, and coproduced by Leslie Harris.
One is the presence of Ms. Harris as the triple-threat filmmaker of the project. Not only is she a newcomer to the feature-film world, but she is one of the extremely rare African-American women who have managed to crack the white-male establishment in American film.
Also noteworthy in the credits is the acknowledgement of a substantial number of not-for-profit organizations that helped Harris complete her movie and bring it to commercial distribution. These range from the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts to the Jerome Foundation and the BACA/Brooklyn Arts Council, among others.
The system of big-business entrepreneurship that governs Hollywood has few provisions for the extra support needed by independent-minded mavericks like Harris. The groups that kicked in for this project deserve thanks not only from the filmmakers, but from everyone who cares about a diversified American movie landscape.
This doesn't mean the picture is a perfect achievement. Like most of its characters, it's rough and sometimes raw to visit with, blending sharp insights into the world of inner-city youth with a weakness for melodrama and touches of silly humor. But to see it is to visit a world rarely touched by mainstream movies.
The heroine of "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T." is Chantel, a teenager who doesn't want to be just another kid on the inner-city path to nowhere. She's proud of her intelligence, earns the highest grades in her calculus class - although this would be more credible if we saw her doing homework - and can't wait to attend medical school and become a doctor.
But her ambitions run into problems, and while many are caused or heightened by the hardships of her environment, others are brought on by nobody but herself. She has an "attitude," as she and her friends would say, that leads her to disrespectful behavior and rude outbursts in school. Her friends are far less serious about life and work than she is, and distract her constantly. And sex is a frequent temptation - despite her awareness of the dangers it poses and the dead-end future that a teen-age pregna ncy is likely to bring.
"Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," named after the New York subway that Chantel rides, follows her through a few months of her 11th-grade life. She hangs out with companions, scuttles an unglamorous boyfriend for one with a handsome face and a classy car, and eventually faces pregnancy - a difficult situation for any single youngster, and particularly for Chantel, who's far less mature and sophisticated than she allows herself to believe.
The story culminates in a childbirth scene of harrowing suspense and horrifying danger. The ending is quiet and downbeat, holding few illusions about Chantel's future but hinting that her life may not be entirely routine in the years to come.
The most lively virtues of Harris's filmmaking style are its incredible energy - the screen positively bursts with color and motion, reflecting the youthful buoyancy of Chantel herself - and its cleverness in blending music, dialogue, and the noise of urban life on the soundtrack, which is an artful achievement in itself. The performances are also distinctive, especially by Ariyan Johnson as Chantel and Ebony Jerido as her best friend, although some of the acting has a sameness and shrillness that make i t wearying after a while.
"Just Another Girl on the I.R.T." is too boisterous and obstreperous to be a likely contender for best-of-the-year honors from the filmmaking establishment. Those very qualities, however, are what make it a compelling echo of an authentically new voice in American film. Harris may have an attitude of her own, but it's a vigorous and original one that demands to make itself heard.
* `Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.' has a graphic sex scene and much explicit talk about sexuality, as well as lots of four-letter language and an intense childbirth scene.