A dance scene from the documentary "Fame High." (Black Valley Films )
Fame may be fleeing, but the kids in "Fame High" will stay with you.
Directed, photographed and co-edited by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, "Fame High" covers a year and change in the life of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, familiarly known as LACHSA, one of the top performing arts schools in the country.
Though this scenario may sound familiar, courtesy of the 1980 and 2009 versions of "Fame" and TV shows such as "Glee," the film itself is not. Try as they might, fictional kids can't compete with the real thing, don't compel us like these earnest, hopeful and winning young people, bound and determined to devote themselves to their art.
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It's not only this idealism that makes the subjects of "Fame High" so compelling, it's also their honesty, their willingness to open a window into their lives at that pivotal moment when they're taking their first tentative steps toward becoming their own person personally and professionally.
Though his last documentary, the Oscar-nominated "The Garden," looked at the complex tribulations of Los Angeles' South Central Community Garden, Kennedy's first film, the exceptional "OT: Our Town," had a high school backdrop as well.
In 2002 Kennedy took a tiny camera down to Dominguez Hills High in Compton and recorded what happened when some devoted teachers decided to mount the first play the school had attempted in more than 20 years, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."
Kennedy's ability to allow young people to relax into being themselves on-screen serves him equally well here. He's also chosen the four students "Fame High" focuses on extremely well.
Over 16 months, this quartet of gifted folk, two seniors and two freshmen, come to grips with difficulties in both their personal and artistic lives. As he did with "OT: Our Town," Kennedy manages to make their problems feel piercingly real and individual, not teen generic.
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Introduced first is 13-year-old freshman Ruby McCollister, an aspiring actress whose bright red hair and sophisticated banter bring to mind a pixie Maureen O'Hara. A child of the stage — her father is shown involved with the Bootleg Theater in Echo Park — the precocious Ruby's first year gets thrown for a loop when she's offered the position of understudy at a Mark Taper Forum production.
Another freshman is Zak Astor, a jazz piano prodigy who is so talented he's the rare first-year person to be offered a slot in one of the school's jazz combos, even though a teacher worries that "his problem is his dad."
In truth, Zak's dad comes across as a handful, someone who loves his son but ends up spreading Zak too thin as he relentlessly books him into appearance after appearance. This pace leads to problems with Zak's class work, and the young man has to confront the question of whom he is playing piano for, other people or himself.
"Fame High's" seniors, about to make critical life choices, are even more compelling, especially ballet student Grace Song, a technically expert dancer who has problems opening up on the floor. "I want to see you dance from inside your heart," one of her teachers tells her, and a moment of Grace dancing to Etta James' "Steal Away" proves to be a revelation.
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The child of a conservative Korean family who don't want her to have a boyfriend, Grace has dreamed since she was 6 of going to Juilliard but also worries about letting her parents down. "I don't want to be," she says seriously, "a disappointing child."
Also balancing the demands of school and future is Brittany Hayes, a promising singer-songwriter who moved to L.A. from small town Baraboo, Wis., with her mom (leaving her dad and siblings behind) so she could attend LACHSA but who starts to think that tending to her career is more important than regular attendance.
How these personal stories play out is deliciously unpredictable, but the one constant that "Fame High" counts on is the ebullient spirit of its characters. One young person sums it up nicely: "Anything can happen — it's high school."
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena