PRESSURE COOKER is set in a culinary arts class at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, where metal detectors and an armed police presence are the norm. Itís where instructor Wilma Stephenson uses her class to do more than show kids the right way to dice vegetables. She uses it to save their lives.
Hers is an approach that doesnít coddle, doesnít cajole. Stephenson builds self-esteem in her students the old-fashioned way, by making those students want to be the best that they can be, and by not allowing them to settle for anything less. Over the course of one school year, filmmakers Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman show her applying tough-love of a ferocious, no-nonsense kind, but one that is as much about love as the toughness, making it the kind that can move mountains and that can, in the process, make her students adore her. The ones who make the cut, that is.
The goal is the scholarship money that her students can win for themselves in competitions, local and state. She gets little official help, forcing her to sell cookies, staging teacher luncheons, and all but strong-arming those same teachers into buying holiday baked goods. She puts her own money, and most of all, her time in the classroom and out, Stephenson keeps the program going. She also keeps the students going, making sure that they have a keen understanding that life has more to offer them than what they see around them.
Barking orders, expecting perfection, making her compliments, handed out only when earned, and therefore worth their weight in gold, she offers absolute commitment to which the kids instinctively respond and which takes precedence over everything else. A lesson brought home to the filmmakers when at one point she decides that the cameras are interfering with her class and orders them out.
The effect she has is astounding, and Becker and Grausman focus on just three of the students in her class. Erica, whose extended family threatens to strangle her aspirations; Tyree, the head of his household with a mother expecting him to lift her and his siblings out of poverty with a football scholarship and then a pro career, and Fatoumata, an immigrant from Mali whose father expects her to be the family servant for his new wife and kids. They are seen in class, and at home, with stark moments illustrating what each of them is up against. The changes in them over the year are subtle, but when Erica, dismayed by what her friends want to eat at Thanksgiving dinner, tells them in exasperated tones that their palettes arenít developed, itís the essence of Stephensonís victory, whether or not Erica gets a scholarship or not, her sights have been raised.
Becker and Grausman offer no commentary. The film speaks for itself. The kids giving up mornings, weekends, and evenings to perfect their dishes. The unbearable tension of each stage of the competition where so much is on the line for each of them, the heartbreaking home life where each has burdens that they carry, not with self-pity, but a calm determination to make good. Still, there is some very smart editing at work here as well. One of the best examples comes at the beginning, as Stephenson is teaching her first class of the semester. The intro is her telling them that everything theyíve heard about her is true -- and worse -- and that not all of them will remain. A few minutes later, she is demonstrating how to make salad when a student leaves. He slams the door behind him. Stephenson, without missing a beat, follows him out and, berates him for his behavior. She is a slight woman with an enormous aura of steel. The student is twice her size and yet absolutely no match for her. She tells him to try closing the door again. The camera picks up the sound of the exchange, but not the picture, focused on the door and then on the faces of the students still in the kitchen classroom. The sound is whatís important, as are the looks of bemusement and then awe on those kidsĎ faces. The next shot is of Erica talking about how much she loves the teacher, how she has changed her life, though she isnĎt necessarily sure of her people skills. You just canít script this stuff. You can, though, if you are a great filmmaker, take the raw materials and make a film that is compelling, dramatic, and triumphant.
PRESSURE COOKER creates an indelible portrait of courage in the face of crushing odds, courage that isnít starry-eyed, but rather courage that takes circumstances as they are and refuses to be deterred. Itís as tough as the real world it depicts, and Mrs. Stephenson is even tougher as she uses the lesson of mastering small things as a metaphor that works miracles.
The DVD offers deleted scenes, and a study guide. The best part are the updates, all too brief, on Erica, Tyree, and Fatoumata. The update on Mrs. Stephenson is unsurprising, sheís still teaching, which makes the world feel like a much better place.