Just Another Girl On the I.R.T.
1992, R Directed by Leslie Harris. Starring Ariyan Johnson, Kevin Thigpen, Ebony Jerido, Chequita Jackson.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 16, 1993
It's safe to say that you haven't seen many characters like Chantel (Johnson) in the movies before -- an African-American teenage girl who dreams of becoming a doctor and getting out of the Brooklyn projects. Her sheer originality is much of the reason to see this movie. To our eyes, she is a new and singular screen character; to her fellow New Yorkers she's just another girl on the I.R.T. subway. The movie is a faithful portrait of teenage emotional life as well as a unique perspective on the situation of urban African-American females. The last few years have seen a commercial surge in African-American filmmaking, but films like Straight Out of Brooklyn, Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City and Do the Right Thing all present stories from male perspectives with male subjects. Now, independent African-American filmmaker Leslie Harris has broken through the commercial barrier to not only make a film with honest female portraits but to also succeed at turning a few bucks in the process. Chantel is smart, funny and very cool. She gets the best grades in her high school classes and plans to skip senior year, apply to college and begin her journey out of the projects. But her smart mouth gets her in trouble with her teachers and, eventually, her fuzzy teenaged understanding of sex just plain gets her “in trouble.” Just Another Girl is at its best in its first half as it presents Chantel's life and shows her coping mechanisms and life strategies -- how she dumbs down her intelligence and ambition in exchange for popularity, how she looks for a boyfriend who has a car instead of subway tokens, how she interacts with her friends and her family life in which her tired parents both work double shifts, how she sasses her teachers and employer with that unique blend of quick intelligence and teenaged stupidity. And when it comes to sex, Chantel and her friends talk the talk and walk the walk but their knowledge is woefully ignorant. The latter half of the movie deals with the consequences of their bravado and things lag a bit at that point. Though in large measure this portion of the film is probably quite realistic in its depiction of certain adolescent female avoidance behaviors, it is nevertheless difficult to watch such a smart girl doing such dumb and self-destructive things. Following its own logic, the story leads to a cathartic climax and positive-minded resolution. But the pitched drama is almost in conflict with the movie's previous, more sociological bent. Johnson's characterization of Chantel is adroit and you can be certain you'll see this newcomer in future projects. Yet the other performances still maintain a low-budget, amateur feel as do some of the visuals. The soundtrack features a well-planned selection of female rappers and hip-hop music. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. ultimately offers a welcome glimpse of one of the individuals behind the sea of faces racing by in the subway cars -- the kind of face and individual that Hollywood customarily has never given a second look.