Friday, June 21, 2013

Fame High

"Fame High," Scott Hamilton Kennedy's documentary about the L.A. County High School for the Arts (LACHSA), introduces us to four talented young people: Brittany Hayes, a blonde harpist and singer whose mother has come with her to L.A. while the rest of the family (Dad and her two sisters) remain in Baraboo, Wisconsin; Ruby McCollister, the flowing red-haired daughter of a theater producer who's been trying to sneak onto stages all her life; Zak Rios, a jazz pianist whose father channels his unfulfilled dreams of boxing glory into his son's hundreds of hours of monthly practice and the hope of one day making the cover of Jazz Times magazine; and Grace Song, a ballerina whose Korean parents own a yogurt shop and wish she would pursue a professional career outside the arts.

I like that Kennedy has chosen kids for whom not everything happens smoothly, but for a reason. Brittany starts skipping school to go out for auditions, and finds that being top of the heap in Baraboo won't get you a cup of coffee here. Ruby lands an understudy position in a production at the Mark Taper Forum, but works 41 days without going on. She tearfully tells her father she's not sure theater is for her. "Hey," he responds, "You got paid to be there. It's a gig!" Zak makes a jazz combo as a freshman, a rare coup, but is demoted to improv in the second semester. Classically trained Grace struggles mightily with self-confidence, as well as with the modern dance forms which she must also master for her audition to Juilliard.

The recurring theme here is the work, not just practice but intellectual engagement with process and technique. Those who hold notions of overnight success gleaned from television spectacles are quickly disabused of them. There is all the standard high school melodrama, but much more, and some very funny lines. Ruby has a little thing going with a fellow actor named Noah. The only problem, she says, is that "if I married him, Ruby Festwich sounds like something you order at Subway." Grace, meanwhile, shares an attraction to a classmate, but knows her parents would never abide such a diversion from her work: "Basically, they don't want me to have a boyfriend until I'm married."

"Fame High" suffers from poor camera work and is mildly inchoate and a bit overlong, but its sly sweetness carries the day. For a tighter, higher quality film of similar subject matter, check out "Rehearsing a Dream," Karen Goodman's and Kirk Simon's Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary short subject about the National Association for Advancement in the Arts's weeklong symposium for the country's most promising high school artists and writers.

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