By William Wolf

PRESSURE COOKER  Send This Review to a Friend

Viewed as part of the documentary series programmed by Thomas Powers at the IFC Center in New York, “Pressure Cooker” is a dynamic film that inspires faith in what motivated students can do if given the opportunity and stimulated by a dedicated, savvy teacher. There is high drama in this unique film, produced and directed by Jennifer Grausman in collaboration with director/editor Mark Becker. They took cameras into a Philadelphia high school to record a remarkable saga of students during the course of the 2006-07 school year learning to cook in the hope of getting valuable scholarships that could lead them out of their inner city environment and start them toward possible culinary arts careers.

The filmmakers were smart to recognize dramatic potential when they found it, and by focusing on a fascinating, demanding, no-nonsense teacher and several of her students, they capture the tension, the hopes and the intensity with which thirteen senior students that year are driven to learn what’s needed for participation in the culminating competition at which leading chefs will judge their accomplishments and award the coveted scholarships. The previous year eleven students snared some $750,000 in scholarships. “Pressure Cooker’ is the perfect descriptive title of the volatile situation.

The payoff in the film comes at the awards event when the students will learn who among them have nailed down the scholarships they seek. The organization sponsoring such school instruction and competition in various American cities is Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). I have been to some of the C-CAP New York awards breakfasts, where one could easily tear up at observing the pride and joy of those who become winners and see a future ahead of them. Director Grausman obviously was inspired by the achievements of C-CAP because it was founded in 1990 by her father Richard Grausman. To her credit, this is no intended promo. “Pressure Cooker” is the work of an intuitive filmmaker who knows an exciting story when she sees it. She previously produced “Dear Lemon Lima” and “Solidarity,” the second a short shown at the New York Film Festival. Her collaborator Becker has “Romantico” among his various credits.

A key to the liveliness of “Pressure Cooker” is veteran teacher Wilma Stephenson, in the school system for 38 years. She teaches the cooking program at Frankford High School in Philadelphia. She’s tough, sometimes funny, eager to see her charges succeed and doesn’t mince words when chewing students out for their own good. She doesn’t tolerate sloppiness and is ready to quickly weed out anyone who shows no aptitude or inclination for cooking. She is appreciated by her students for her tough love, and it shows on screen.

The filmmakers also show the right instincts for which students on whom to concentrate. Choosing the subjects wasn’t an attempt to project who might win, but who would be interesting to follow around. Erica Gaither proves to be of particular interest as a result of circumstances in which she is a mother figure helping to raise her blind younger sister. Tyree Dudley is another good candidate, a 6’4” tackle for the school football team. He’d like to have a football career but cooking could be a more far-reaching opportunity. There is also Fatoumata, who emigrated from Ivory Coast. She comes across as bright and very ambitious, especially as revealed in an interview with the judges awarding the scholarships.

The film editing, handled by Becker, is sharp as it accents the local environment in which the students live as well as their classroom work. The film also is consistently aware of the human side of their lives, including their relationships and the excitement of dressing for the awards occasion. The excellent cinematography by Justin Schein and Leigh Iacobucci also contributes to the overall reality that is captured.

I won’t spoil your suspense by telling who wins. “Pressure Cooker” churns such suspense and excitement. It should be widely shown to students and educators alike, as well as to the general public, for it not only stands as strong filmmaking, but is an encouraging counterpoint to those would throw up their hands in despair at the problems in our educational system. A Partcipant Media film.


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