March 11, 2009

Documenting the Brooklyn Blues

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Students take pregnancy tests, hand over drugs and run from cops all in the hours before they trudge into class on the first day of school. These are not the typical scenarios that we see on television teen dramas nowadays. On Monday afternoon, Cornell alum and writer/director Trac Minh Vu ’97 presented a screening of his TV pilot Red Hook High, where students are as far away from the luxuries of the good life as they can get.
The 22-minute part-documentary and part-drama was an Official Selection at the 2008 New York Television Festival held in Manhattan last September; on Monday, the pilot was shown as part of the Film Forum screenings at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. Red Hook High is a direct confrontation with the not so attractive daily life as it exists in its most tenacious and un-romanticized form. The students in Red Hook High were not professional actors but were eager students with experiences to tell. In the seven weeks before the pilot was filmed, Vu conducted workshops in the spirit of acting camps on Saturdays. He concocted lists of potential storylines for the students to consider and encouraged them to research teenage television dramas, but Vu never employed a set script to which they needed to adhere.
The pilot is surprisingly optimistic even though it portrays teens in a deteriorating low-income district. Vu described Red Hook as the neighborhood that got left behind as New York and Manhattan boomed. Nevertheless, Red Hook High carries a sense of hope that is convincingly palpable despite its serious subject matter. The pilot opens to upbeat music as the sun rises and the characters get ready for school. Math teacher Matt wakes up at 4:39 a.m., anxious about his first day as the school’s assistant principal. Justin, an openly gay male, cooks breakfast for his mother, who is suspicious when he tells her that he plans to attend school that day. Meanwhile, friends Star and Lenae fumble through pregnancy tests, confused over the tests’ application and giggle over diagrams on the instruction manual. In a more serious storyline, Peter, a Haitian immigrant who lives with his older brother John, finds himself in the midst of a drug deal observed by the police.
Many of the young actors attended South Brooklyn Community High School, where the pilot was filmed. Every scene is based on the day-to-day observations of not merely the students but also the director himself. At the morning faculty meeting, Matt formulates a plan for the teachers to assemble in front of the school each morning and greet the students with cheers and high-fives. This scene was inspired by Vu’s real-life teaching experiences aimed at creating relationships with the students so that they would stay out of trouble. “[The students] pretended they didn’t like it but they liked it,” Vu said.
People watch teen dramas that focus on the upper crust of society as a temporary escape from their lives, and coincidentally perhaps Red Hook High served the same purpose for the students involved in its filming. Vu was aware in advance that some of the actors were known to be unreliable and would show up late to the set, and he spontaneously integrated an actual tardy appearance into the last scene. Furthermore, a new Ikea store was opening down the street and takes had to be scheduled around the students’ job interviews. One of the pilot’s key actors was even replaced due to being in the hospital after a fight.
Vu brings attention to a school environment seldom explored, and it reminds us that evocative stories exist in every type of setting. After all, it’s not the expensive purses and coats that engross us and make us tune in to Gossip Girl every Monday night. It is instead the emotional investment that we put into the television characters that sustain our attention. We wonder if Star really is pregnant, if Matt’s plan will prevent dropouts and what had happened to Peter’s parents. “The pilot itself will never be shown, but its concept can sell,” Vu said. We hope it does. In Red Hook High, Trac Minh Vu reminds us that in the most unglamorous locales, everyday life can be as dramatic and gripping. After we are bestowed with one glimpse into the lives of these students, we cannot help but want more.