Pressure Cooker

 By Michael T. Dennis


In “Pressure Cooker” we're taken inside the graffiti-covered walls of Philadelphia's Frankford High School where a group of forgotten students struggle through Mrs. Stephenson's infamous Culinary Arts class.  The kids suffer the demanding standards of their no-nonsense, streetwise teacher as she prepares them for cooking competitions where they'll have a chance to earn scholarships that will transport them beyond their depressed neighborhoods and stagnant families.  This recipe has all the ingredients of a good documentary, but in the end it comes out overdone and hard to swallow.


The notion of a teacher who practices tough love is nothing new but, with so many different ways to explore it, should still be a fertile subject.  “Pressure Cooker” owes a debt to films that present a hero-teacher finding unconventional ways to reach their troubled students, from “Dead Poets Society” to “Dangerous Minds”.  But as a documentary, it also tends away from the inherent drama in the teacher-student dynamic to dabble in the culinary antics of “Hell's Kitchen” or the competitive spectacle of recent documentary successes like “Spellbound”.


It may be that such different elements simply don't blend together well, or that the filmmakers have been unable to balance them properly.  One clear problem is the reliance filmmakers Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman place on Mrs. Stephenson to carry their film.  Charming in a rough-hewn way, her screen time is ample but much of it is spent delivering sarcastic quips to the camera.  We get no sense of her background and are asked to accept the fact that she takes joy in her students' successes, even when we know there is a bigger story going untold.


Mrs. Stephenson's students are far more interesting, and “Pressure Cooker” is at its best when spending intimate time with them.  These are your classic cases of disadvantaged youth, but little time is wasted explaining the systemic problems behind the lack of opportunities offered to them.  They're kids from the wrong side of the tracks, and that's all we have to know to understand how important those scholarships are.


The students are presented as complex individuals (at least the three who emerge as major characters are; the remaining ten students blend into the background).  Each one is shown to be the product of a specific family situation, burdened by adult responsibilities like raising a sibling or carrying the dreams of a better life in stead for the previous generation.


Among them, the most compelling is also the most obvious: Fatoumata is an immigrant from Africa, sweet and modest about her talent with an overbearing, traditionalist father who wants no more ambition from his daughter than to serve the needs of the family.  There is serious question as to whether of not Fatoumata would even be allowed to leave home if she were offered a scholarship, making her an instant underdog.


Erica is very much an American teen, overcome with dreams of getting away and finding material happiness in the wide world.  Tyree may be deceptively emblematic of countless young men, seeing his cooking as a safety net for his even more improbable goal of playing professional football.  When his coach mentions sports as one of the only doors out of the ghetto, the importance of Mrs. Stephenson's class is underlined once again.


Together with their classmates, and under Mrs. Stephenson's unwavering hand, these students form a family where one is most needed.  They find each other prom dates, push one another to succeed, and share in their moments of disappointment and elation.  Like those other films about teachers, the lessons learned extend beyond the confines of the classroom.


“Pressure Cooker” is not without its moments of inspiration, due mostly to the sheer determination that the aspiring chefs demonstrate.  But too often it is framed as Mrs. Stephenson's story instead of pushing us to invest in these young people.  It's hard to imagine that there aren't even more stories from among the group that would round out a film that should be more about young people following dreams and less about a self-appointed enabler, even if her sassy attitude draws a few laughs.


Could it be a case of feel-good fatigue, where inspirational stories clutter the movie screens and detract from the impact of one that's actually happening in real life?  Or is the focus on Mrs. Stephenson a case of filmmakers falling in love with their subject and losing sight of what is most compelling about the situation they're documenting?  The need to ask such questions is not exactly auspicious, and the sense that a better, more coherent message could be delivered in the same film (maybe even using the same footage) is as disappointing as it is puzzling.




Non Sequitur Productions and Participant Media

Distributed by Bev Pictures

Directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman

Producers, Jennifer Grausman, Myna Joseph, Garret Savage, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Eden Wurmfeld

Cinematography, Mark Becker, Leigh Iacobucci, Justin Schein

Film Editing, Mark Becker