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Simmering Students to Perfection

Pressure Cooker (2009)

Los Angeles Film Festival

Movies often inflate the significance of the high-school experience. Typically, they’ll characterize the four years as the high time of life, a carefree collection of cliques, parties, sports, pretty girls, handsome boys and adult figures both memorable and dull. Sometimes, however, in the right context certain of the formula’s oft-repeated elements ring true. “Pressure Cooker,” a new documentary from Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker, co-opts the inspirational-teacher-changes-her-students-for-the-better storyline and makes it resonate.

It’s convincing because of the force of Wilma Stephenson’s personality and the fierce love she bestows on her culinary arts students at Philadelphia’s Frankford High School. She comes across as the sort of wholly dedicated figure that could irrevocably change someone’s life. In teaching her students the art of making a crepe and preparing them for a citywide scholarship competition, waking up early to meet them in the kitchen and never demanding less than total excellence, she’s actually showing them how to maximize their own potential and unlock talents they never knew they had.

The same could be said of Mr. Holland, Mr. Escalante (Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver”) or any number of educators, both real and imagined. Yet that knowledge hardly dilutes the impact generated by the picture’s intimate focus, which concentrates heavily on Mrs. Stephenson’s classroom presence and lets its audience fully take part in the Stephenson experience. Equal parts terrifyingly direct and refreshingly optimistic, with a penchant for screaming, cajoling and pressuring her kids, she registers so significantly over 99 filmed minutes that one can only begin to imagine the last imprint that would be left by a year in her presence.

Ms. Grausman and Mr. Becker effectively underline the extent of Mrs. Stephenson’s emotional attachment to her students by cutting to her beaming proudly at their prom, beset with anxiety at the climactic scholarship competition and overcome by joy at the announcing of the results. But “Pressure Cooker” is not just Mrs. Stephenson’s story. The filmmakers have wisely chosen to focus on three of her standout students, each blessed with a unique, inherently dramatic tale of his or her own.

Erica Gaither serves as the woman of a household comprised of her single father and blind sister, taking care of both and beset with a host of responsibilities she’s not sure she’s ready to fully undertake. Tyree Dudley, a star of the football team, balances his dual ambitious aspirations of playing in the NFL and opening a restaurant of his own. Fatoumata Dembele, a recent immigrant from Africa, confronts cultural discrepancies and a disapproving father as she excels academically and hopes for a scholarship to an elite culinary institute. Thoughtful figures all, gifted with a mature sense of self-awareness and true old souls, they’re ideal subjects for a character study that testifies to the formative power of a quality education not taken for granted, and the unparalleled rewards in the teaching profession’s noblest function: helping young men and women fulfill their dreams.


Opens on May 27 in Manhattan.

Directed by Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker; directors of photography, Mr. Becker, Justin Schein and Leigh Iacobucci; edited by Mr. Becker; music by Prince Paul and Donald Newkirk; produced by Ms. Grausman; released by BEV Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. This film is not rated.


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