Among the diverse slate of films screening this weekend at the Dave Barber Cinematheque is Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992), director Leslie Harris’ only feature film to date.
The film is presented as part of the Memories of Girlhood series at the Cinematheque, curated by Mahlet Cuff, which aims to explore “the vulnerabilities and intricacies of what it means to be a Black girl” with a blend of fiction and documentary pictures.
Just Another Girl lies somewhere in between truth and fiction, with a cinéma vérité style that eschews loftier independent filmmaking ambition for something real. The film is a story told by 17-year-old Chantel, a feisty Brooklynite with dreams of medical school and a penchant for addressing the audience directly.
Determined to transcend her poverty-stricken trappings, the mostly straight-A student juggles school, romance and her overbearing family with plenty of spunk. But in spite of her fierce convictions and more timid compunctions, Chantel finds herself facing issues of life or death, all before her senior year.
This is a spirited motion picture, with direction just slick enough to keep up with Ariyan Johnson’s standout turn as a brash and fervent self-appointed Big Apple teen queen. The young ladies who lead the film are believably affable. They berate and jostle each other endlessly like all true friends do.
Scenes are separated by transitions overlaid with buoyant hip-hop tunes. The era is instantly recognizable. It can be hard to tell if the movie brushes with contrivance, or if it’s simply the product of a more genuine era – but either way, it’s a mostly joyous urban foray.
The back half of the film aims for the en vogue ’90s social consciousness with a sombre tone as the film addresses the confounding agony of teen pregnancy, and Chantel must reluctantly confront her own immaturity. The film falters a bit on this end, as the stilted supporting performances and occasionally awkward staging veer the picture from slice-of-life sitcom to overwrought afterschool special like the click of a remote.
But 31 years later, it can be easy to understate the importance of Just Another Girl. Filmed in just over two weeks on a shoestring budget and devoid of many of the alluring eccentricities of, say, a Spike Lee joint, this was only the second feature film directed by an African-American woman to receive theatrical distribution – ever.
Intended to provide a feminine angle on the then-burgeoning genre of hood dramas, there is legitimate credibility lent to Harris’ pre-credits declaration that this was “A Film Hollywood Dared Not Do.” It’s comparatively tame by modern standards but still uncompromising (stow the popcorn during the queasy climax of the film).
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. can be tidily likened to the conscious hip-hop songs of its era. Kinda cool, sorta clumsy and more poignant than it has any right to be. At the end of the day, it’s a gentle reminder to those in need: keep ya head up.
Published in Volume 78, Number 01 of The Uniter (September 7, 2023)