Pressure Cooker


Columbia, Missouri, cool little art town that it is, hosts the True/False Film Festival every year with a great selection of documentaries, shorts and local films. I am always pleasantly surprised by the films I see there. Today was no different. Pressure Cooker, a film about high schoolers competing for culinary scholarships, exceeded all my expectations. If you’re in Columbia, you should see it Sunday at 12:30.

Pressure Cooker follows culinary arts students at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, focusing on three seniors. They are pushed and guided by Wilma Stephenson, an uncompromising teacher with a lot of sass but a lot of love, too.

If you’ve seen Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, or any other documentary with kids in a competition, you start to think you’ve seen them all. But Pressure Cooker has just what those films need for success: incredible characters. Filmmakers Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman found people with great personalities and great stories, and through extensive interviews, 300 hours of filming and a clear vision, they presented these individuals with all their layers.

The film, cliche as it is to say, makes you laugh and makes you cry. It is wonderfully edited and has great music to go along with it.

Grausman’s father, Richard Grausman, started the Careers through Culinary Arts Program in 1990 to give underprivileged high school students opportunities in the restaurant and hospitality industry. C-CAP has given $25 million in scholarships and $2.2 million in supplies and equipment to classrooms. Jennifer Grausman started to hear a lot about Wilma Stephenson because of her intense personality and remarkable students.

Grausman and Becker met Stephenson and her class, and eventually whittled their focus down to three seniors Erica, Tyree and Fatoumata.

Erica fills the mother role in her house, where she lives with her father and blind younger sister. She wants to get out of Philly and pursue her dream of becoming a chef. Tyree is a star defensive tackle on the school football team, who wants to have a backup plan if he can’t go pro. Fatoumata arrived from Africa only four years ago and wants to seize the opportunity to go to culinary school, despite her father’s disapproval.

But that’s a superficial summary of them. The documentary never paints the students as one-dimensional. They are all hardworking, have interesting backgrounds, a range of interests and a lot of potential. You come to sincerely care about them. Even Michael felt tears coming during Fatoumatou’s scholarship interview.

Becker and Grausman answered questions after the screening, and I hoped to give you that Q&A, but the recording didn’t save properly to my phone.

You can see them tomorrow after the screening at Missouri Theatre at 12:30 p.m. Pressure Cooker will continue on the festival circuit and should be on DVD and cable within the year.