||Jim McKay's first film, "Girls Town" (1996), was a scruffy, nearly insufferable study of camaraderie among young women, but his followup feature on the same theme is much more natural and affecting. Perhaps it's just the absence of Lili Taylor, who can be extraordinarily annoying, that makes the difference, but "Our Song" isn't at all as grating as the earlier film; rather, it captures the ups-and-downs in the lives of three New York high school girls with surprising delicacy and honesty.
The story is a simple one. Schoolmates Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Joycelyn (Anna Simpson) and Maria (Melissa Martinez), all members of the campus marching band, are nearly inseparable, but as the school year closes there's trouble on the horizon. All three have parental difficulties, either absent fathers or overworked, often uncomprehending mothers. Word has begun circulating that their school is closing because of asbestos problems, meaning that they'll have to transfer elsewhere. One of the girls begins gravitating toward a new group of friends, creating frayed relations with her old pals. And another finds herself pregnant, unable to tell her mother of her condition and absolutely committed to keeping the child, even though the father is clearly disinclined to offer any degree of support.
All of this might seem to presage an unrelievedly gloomy picture, but McKay's is far from that. It certainly confronts deeply serious issues, but does so in a fashion that avoids seeming overbearing or maudlin, and it's neither overly slick nor hopelessly ragged. The leads are entirely convincing, drawing a nice balance between youthful exuberance and moodiness over their difficulties, and the depiction of their parties and extracurricular activities seems dead-on. The portrayal of the public housing project where the characters live has a sense of authenticity, too. There are also effective lighter moments--a conversation in a diner about a cute guy at the counter, which Lanisha and Maria conduct in Spanish to prevent him from understanding, has a particularly good payoff. And the conclusion walks the fine line between uplifting sentimentality and morbid hopelessness.
"Our Song" (the title refers to the girls' favorite tune) is a small film, unprepossessing in visual terms and lacking the pizzazz one's accustomed to find in studio product. But its straightforwardness and simplicity are welcome commodities after a summer season full of lumbering special-effects extravaganzas.