Our Song is an exemplary coming-of-age tale not least because it so gracefully transcends its genre—for all its verité specificity, the film’s aches are lifelong and universal. Jim McKay’s incandescent second feature begins with a dateline (“Crown Heights, Brooklyn, U.S.A., late summer”) and maintains a loose documentary mode in shadowing three friends who cling together and drift apart over the course of a few muggy weeks. With the aid of redoubtable cinematographer Jim Denault (who also shot the effulgent nightscapes of Boys Don’t Cry), McKay captures the heat-dazed restlessness of a slow-burning August, the inimitable cadences of teenage rapport, and a veritable found-sound city symphony (sprinklers on pavement, barking dogs, bass thumping from passing cars, an omnipresent, tinkling ice cream truck). But the director and his cast also uncover less tangible emotional streams: the yearning and disappointment native to both the best and worst parent-child relationships; the tiny cracks in even the closest of friendships that can split open silently, gone unnoticed until it’s too late to mend them.
The film pivots on an asbestos scare that shuts down a public high school, sending hundreds of kids scrambling for classes elsewhere and splitting up best pals Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Joycelyn (Anna Simpson), and Maria (Melissa Martinez), who perform together in a marching band. (Brooklyn’s own Jackie Robinson Steppers punctuate the ambling narrative with boisterous blasts of, say, “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” or Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop [That Thing].”) This impending change only thickens a tension growing between the girls. Joycelyn finds herself edging shyly toward another pair of friends in a higher social caste. Maria discovers she’s pregnant, and confides in Lanisha but not Joycelyn.
Centering on young black and Latina daughters of getting-by single moms, Our Song is no doubt a scarce breed, rarer still for refusing to circumscribe its characters solely by their race, gender, or socioeconomic station (or, for that matter, their purchase-power demographic). McKay abandons the sloganeering melodrama of Girls Town, his strident if well-intentioned debut; here he isn’t concerned with incident so much as anticipation and between-time: subway rides, party primping, afterschool daydreams, shoplifting. (The only eruptive event in Our Song is also its sole, clanging false note: a murder-suicide that befalls two secondary characters.) Denault’s photography matches the adolescent collusion of urgency and ennui—the colors are rich but the picture is a bit grainy, just short of crystalline focus. The patient camera leans in closely on the three lead actresses—extraordinary first-timers all—as they puzzle out the volatile chemical equations of their lives; Washington’s face, even in repose, always seems about to break into laughter or tears.
Our Song stays in media res from start to finish. It doesn’t end so much as glimmer and fade out, its pensive last shots striking attenuated chords of sadness and implacable regret but nothing like resolution. Two friends linger over morning goodbyes at a subway stop, knowing that their world will have subtly, irreversibly recalibrated itself by nightfall—which is to say, it’s a day like any other.
Like Our Song, Zhang Yimou’s puppy-love pastoral The Road Home is a microcosmic social portrait only as far as the particular fixations and longings of its young heroine allow it to be. A filial remembrance of bygone country life daubed with copious voiceover, Zhang’s 10th feature matches form with his debut, 1987’s Red Sorghum. Following his father’s death, a city businessman returns to his childhood village in northern China to help his mother with the funeral arrangements. Soon enough, his gaze fixes on an old picture of his parents, igniting a flashback; the film fairly blushes with its own brazen nostalgia, switching from desolate green-tinged monochrome to full-blooming color as peerless maiden Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi, the hellcat from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) glides into the frame. In love at first glance with schoolteacher Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), the single-minded girl becomes his charming stalker, always in the midst of hot pursuit or hopeful stakeout.
The perfect boy is, of course, the perfect educator: Zhang’s last effort, Not One Less, also idealized the rural schoolhouse, and The Road Home‘s placement in the late ’50s—the Cultural Revolution looms less than a decade away—gives a rueful cast to the otherwise soppy teacher-veneration. (Authorities haul Changyu away from the village when undefined “political problems” arise.) The Road Home is foremost enthralled, however, with its lead actress—wide-eyed and pigtailed, revered in close-up after stunned close-up. Time keeps blurring into slow motion while Zhao Di’s every movement strikes up legions of weeping strings and pan flutes. Zhang Yimou’s strongest films always doubled as valentines to the porcelain face of former muse Gong Li, but here, reiterative beauty-worship is something of an end in itself.
Dennis Lim profiles Our Song director Jim McKay.