Reviewed by Frank Lovece

Like his 1996 debut GIRLS TOWN, Jim McKay's second feature is another documentary-like drama about three inner-city high-school girls. Both films feature a pregnant protagonist and a suicidal friend, but any real resemblances end there. Where his earlier film captured the budding feminist angst of articulate young adults, McKay's follow-up looks at the stage before that, as a group of 15- and 16-year-olds shed their childhood selves and relationships, sort out new feelings and changing realities, and start to develop into the grown-ups they are fast becoming. In the predominantly black and Hispanic Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, three musketeers Maria (Melissa Martinez), Lanisha (Kerry Washington) and Joy (Anna Simpson) while away the summer between freshman and sophomore years. Maria and Lanisha have summer jobs at a storefront bakery; Joy works at a boutique; all three play in their community-house marching band (played here by the highly regarded Jackie Robinson Steppers, led by the charismatic Tyrone Brown). The girls hang out and talk about boys, their futures and favorite ice-cream flavors, and shoplift with the attitude that it's their right to do so. When the girls learn that their old school will be closed for asbestos removal, and that they will have some say in which new school they can attend, the small degrees of difference among them set the three friends on increasingly divergent paths. McKay accurately and straightforwardly depicts a world in which teenage mothers slap and loudly curse at their two-year-olds in public — not out of meanness, but as a matter of course. And while Maria herself does get pregnant, the film picks away at inner-city stereotypes with an almost ethnographic astuteness; the girls' project-dwelling mothers, for instance, aren't the one-dimensional sinners or sainted martyrs of an Afterschool Special. Most interesting in this respect is Lanisha's mom, Pilar (Marlene Forte), who brings a middle-class sensibility to her child's upbringing. Shot — and shot through — with an assurance beyond the need for superficial slickness (kudos to music-video vet McKay, who could have easily tarted it up), this coming-of-age slice of life is sometimes a bit too languid, and the band sequences, while kickin', don't mesh seamlessly with either plot or theme (while the song alluded to in the title, "Ooh Child," gets rather pounded into both). Yet the movie sticks with you as few do: It's rewardingly authentic and emotionally real.