Sept. 12--Scott Hamilton Kennedy's excellent scrapbook documentary "Fame High," which premieres Thursday on Showtime (after a brief theatrical release), spends a year at LACHSA, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, a by-audition public institution located on the grounds of Cal State L.A. Quite possibly you were unaware of its existence until just a moment ago.
The title, of course, recalls the movie "Fame" and the TV show fashioned from it (and the Kids from Fame, fashioned from the TV show), though it is more than possible that many kids from LACSHA have never heard of any of it. (Lee Curreri, anyone? No?)
They have, however, grown up in an era of high-school musicals -- and, for that matter, of documentaries that spend a year in high school. Indeed, the 2009 MTV series "Taking the Stage" was set in a similar school in Cincinnati. Some arrive with TV-shaped dreams, but learn that talent is only potential and that art takes work.
"If you're early you're on time, if you're on time you're late, if you're late you're dead," one teacher tells his new class, and when they laugh adds, "Not a joke."
Appropriately, Kennedy's emphasis is on school and family. Romantic attractions and friendships are glimpsed as if (and literally) from across a room.
Kennedy focuses on four students: freshmen Ruby and Zak (theater and music, respectively) and seniors Brittany and Grace (music and dance). Ruby's parents are theater pros; Zak's loving but over-involved father imagines his jazz-pianist 13-year-old is "probably one of the best piano players in the United States at his age" and spreads him dangerously thin on a schedule of practice and gigs.
Brittany's mother has moved with her from Wisconsin, leaving the rest of the family behind. Grace's parents, traditional Koreans, struggle to understand and support her dancing -- a reminder that sometimes the sacrifice parents make is of their own ideas about what's best for their kids.
Kennedy turns up the heat here and there editorially, but the high-level pursuit of excellence, especially within the framework of
normal teen growth, is dramatic as is. (I remember kids like this from my non-arts high school; they were creatures from another planet. "It was like my plan to go here since I was 7," says Ruby. When I was 7, I had a plan, too -- it involved a bowl of cereal.)
The kids are thoughtful and well-spoken but they are also unfinished -- which makes their company interesting.
With a lot of ground to cover, the film is necessarily episodic and does much of its work in quick, brief strokes. Yet stories emerge, propulsive and coherent and terrifically affecting. You watch with bated breath, crossed fingers, wet eyes.
"I didn't do it for myself," Zak says of his music toward the end of the film, "and now I'm starting to do it for myself. Which is really a great feeling, man. I feel like I matter."
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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