Is there anything trendier at the moment than a ’90s throwback? (Maybe early ’00s.) If the Collab is known for one thing, it’s having a finger on the pulse of all that is trendy, so of course this month won’t go by without a peek back into the ’90s as we focus on films directed by Black women.
A note about the I.R.T. for those of us not in ’90s New York: I.R.T. was the Interborough Rapid Transit, one of the former operators of what would become the NYC Subway. Despite the title, there aren’t many scenes on the subway, so this may not be the film for you if you’re only in it for the trains.
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.
A confident Brooklyn teenager with big plans to graduate high school early and become a doctor finds her future disrupted by an unexpected pregnancy.
A proud ’90s Brooklyn girl, 17-year-old Chantel Mitchell knows all too well what people think of her and her neighborhood. Determined to tell her own story, Chantel breaks the fourth wall frequently to offer her own teenage perspective on her life and future.
Breaking stereotypes, Chantel is loud and bold while earning good grades and planning to graduate from high school early to pursue college and medical school. Her teachers are probably relieved, in all honesty, as Chantel is constantly getting in trouble for talking back and challenging the curriculum’s failure to adequately address slavery and racism. She has decided she won’t be stuck in her job at the corner store forever or end up like her parents, stressed and struggling to make a living.
In many ways, the future feels like a long way off for Chantel, and nothing will stop her from chilling with her friends and dancing with all of the cute guys at parties. So though she’s a smart & precocious young woman, Chantel is a teenager who acts impulsively and without all of the facts. In a commentary on the lack of sex education in the States (which has not significantly improved), Chantel and her friends believe a number of complete myths, such as having sex standing up makes it impossible to get pregnant.
It’s in this context that Chantel ditches her not-quite-boyfriend Gerard and takes an interest in self-assured Ty, who has a Jeep, aka a way for Chantel to avoid remaining another girl on the IRT. When Chantel has unprotected sex with Ty, it’s not long before she realizes she’s pregnant. In denial and anxious about her future, Chantel decides to keep things a secret and not make a choice about her pregnancy.
However, surely keeping her pregnancy hidden will only be possible for a rather limited amount of time?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
Director Leslie Harris’ vision was to film the coming-of-age story of a young Black woman at a time when this type of narrative received so little attention or acclaim. Based on the lack of funding for any future Harris ventures, it seems little has changed in filmmaking. In addition to the director’s vision, I love the ’90s fashions and the bold, unapologetic tone of Chantel’s character.
What makes this film feel uneven at times is the tension between two approaches here: that of celebrating Chantel’s coming-of-age and portraying her life realistically. I appreciate the film’s hopeful tone, which embraces Chantel’s tough persona and recognizes her as a determined yet flawed teenager. It’s refreshing to see her self-assuredness onscreen, including when she claps back with facts about the problematic whitewashing of history.
The tone shifts quite significantly when Chantel realizes she’s pregnant and tries to hide from this reality. Structural problems surrounding the lack of education and resources for sexual health have a real impact on Chantel’s life. The pregnancy morphs from scary to absolutely horrifying when she goes into labor prematurely and frantically searches for answers much too late. Shifting from Chantel’s confidence to horror to hope makes the last third in particular feel jarring.
Harris’ commitment to telling a realistic story that breaks down stereotypes and celebrates the everyday lives and survival of Black characters seems to be a major reason her film didn’t gain much traction despite recognition at Sundance. It’s frustrating that she’s been unable to make a film since, as my sense from Just Another Girl is that Harris has significantly more creative storytelling up her sleeve.