In many ways, cutthroat child-contest docs Hoop Dreams and Spellbound aren’t about children at all. Their subjects are kids, sure, but they’re caught up in pre-existing systems—pro-track high school basketball and the National Spelling Bee—that are ostensibly designed for them but actually serve as vicarious outlets for adult competitive energies. Both films surf atop the subtext of this perverse pleasure, exposing and encouraging the sadistic thrill of watching youngsters collapse under the pressure of graphing phonemes or lunging for the rim. What’s different about OT: Our Town is its de facto focus on its teen subjects, black and Latino students at Compton’s Manuel Dominguez High School attempting to put on the school’s first play in 20 years. Aside from the ass-kickings of English teacher Catherine Borek—an inspired, tough-talking Salma Hayek ringer—there’s no institutional nudging whatsoever. Quite the contrary. The powers that be at Dominguez, which has no auditorium but boasts an eat-off-the-floor basketball court (and a hoop-dreamy program that sends its stars straight into the NBA), flatly refuse to temporarily repurpose the gym as a theater.
Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy, also Borek’s boyfriend, began filming when she asked him to help her with the ad hoc drama club. Over the next month, as she led rehearsals, he captured the kids’ impressions of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 “farm-lingo” platitudes (“This is fucking weak!”) versus life in their town. As Borek encouraged the actors to move beyond Grover’s Corners and mine their culture to vivify the play, Kennedy followed them home and toured their lives. Between line readings, we meet wise Ebony, a Latina raised by her baby-sitter when her prostitute mother abandoned her; José, the tongue-pierced Latino cynic cast as Wilder’s town drunk; *NSync-loving Jackie, who hardly knows her neglectful mom and imprisoned dad, but brings blithe slapstick cacophony to her role as insufferable gossip; Archie, the charismatic lead, who wears his dad’s black-and-white embroidered Mexican wedding suit onstage; and Christopher, tall and shy, who admits he can’t relate to the loving father character he’s been asked to play.
The final performance is no triumph. But while Kennedy doesn’t shy away from Borek’s and the kids’ frustrations, one does get the feeling that his edits lend some false hope to the proceedings. His focus on the bonds forming among the students—many of whom admit to being loners at the sports-crazed school—sometimes masks larger issues of the kids’ (and the town’s) obstacles. But as the players themselves struggle with finding what Borek calls “the line between representing ourselves and stereotyping,” Kennedy takes pains to illuminate aspects and insights that buck cliché. Of course, when evening gunshots spray from a car as the kids break outside their cafeteria performance space, he can’t help acknowledging the real threats surrounding them. One of them indicates, pointing to the cruising vehicle, “It’s right about there. And I don’t like where I’m standing.”