Early on in FAME HIGH, Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s documentary which follows the lives of four talented students at the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts, there is a vignette that captures an impromptu moment with Noah, one of the films recurring characters. “It’s high school, anything can happen”, he says. You might well wish for more of that sense of risk and the unexpected from FAME HIGH, but Kennedy’s storytelling mostly sticks to a predictable, though at times, cautiously paced coverage of his engaging main actors. Two of them, Grace Song, a ballet dancer, and Brittany Hayes, a musician and singer songwriter, are completing their senior year. Each has very real personal dramas to contend with, both at home and in the rigorous environment at school. The other two students are freshman. Zak Astor is an exceptional jazz pianist, and the savvy, delightfully precocious Ruby McCollister is a drama student pursuing her dream of turning her life into art.
Kennedy, who also doubled as the cameraman for the film, excels in his deft handling of filming these kids without getting in the way. He manages especially to draw compelling moments from Grace Song who struggles with cutting loose and dancing beyond the boundaries of her technical accomplishments, but also with her traditional-minded Korean parents, who pose something of an emotional roadblock to her dreams of being a professional dancer. When Grace says, “I don’t know where I’d be without dance”, you don’t doubt her sincerity or the sense that as her audition date for Juilliard approaches, her life feels poised for a potentially huge disappointment.
Perhaps the best of this film is the way in which Kennedy avoids indulging in too much sentiment as his four characters deal with their ups and downs. They all have pressing family problems, but we also see vividly how being in the arts is a crucial lifeline for each. That’s an important message that is going to resonate with kids who are forming passionate connections with the arts at a young age. It’s likely to be instructive for their parents as well.
Kennedy’s documentary style adheres to a straightforward weaving together of well edited segments that keep the story moving. Two lengthy sections which cover the run-up to Grace’s Juilliard audition, and the-end-of-the-year performance montage lean too heavily on quick edits, a backing music track, and voice overs to inflate excitement. Jillian Moul and Kennedy were the editors for the film which was shot during 2007 and 2008. Additional music was by Doug DeAngelis.
In the end, the news is hopeful for all the stars of FAME HIGH, who make good on their dreams. Grace is accepted to the prestigious Juilliard School of Dance. We learn too, that she has shed the hide bound world of ballet for modern dance, when she accepts an offer to dance with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Brittany overcomes her academic problems and insecurities, graduates, and heads for England and the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Zak and Ruby both eventually graduate LACSHA and head for college. Those successes resonate with a central message of the film: that the arts can act as a powerful engine for kids and educational goals in general.
FAME HIGH, produced by Black Valley Films, has been seen as part of the Toronto New Wave Festival, the Provincetown International Film Festival, the Saint Louis International Film Festival, and the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens in Los Angeles and New York City in June.