High school is tough enough as it is. Now imagine that, in addition to tests, grade point averages, and social interactions, having your ability to play a musical instrument be a vital part of your future. At the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA), students receive heavy training in their chosen field of music, dance, or acting in addition to their usual matriculation. It’s one of the most prestigious art schools in America, and also one of the hardest to get into. In Fame High, Scott Hamilton Kennedy follows a select group of students over the course of a year at LACHSA, through their various trials and tribulations.
The idea of “following dreams” is a popular trope in fiction, and seems especially resonant in American life. It ties into the idea that we’re able to do anything if we work at it hard enough. One of the teenagers, Grace, wants to be a dancer, in defiance of the wishes of her parents, who would prefer she pursue a more financially promising vocation. This documentary explores exactly what it really takes to fulfill one’s dreams. The answer seems to be, in brief: work really, really hard at it. So hard that you feel you can’t work any more. And then work some more.
Fame High is a great showcase in how the cultivation of a student’s artistic ability is vital to their intellectual development. Right now, most schools are cutting back on, or cutting away altogether, their arts programs, when in fact they should be doing just the opposite. This is as impassioned a plea you’ll see for the validity of the arts as you’ll ever see. It’s fully possible to make a curriculum that incorporates all the subjects that you can’t necessarily test on.
What’s odd in the film is that it doesn’t quite convey a sense of how the school functions as a social environment. All of the characters seem isolated from one another. There are occasional glimpses of friends, but mainly each story thread concentrates on its character’s personal struggles. Grace searches for a boyfriend, but that subplot doesn’t really go anywhere. Perhaps this simply reflects the reality of the school, and all the pupils really are obsessed with craft to the point of ignoring overcomplicated high school relationship politics. In that case, I wish I’d gone there!
Fame High might not quite “work” as a high school movie, but as a movie about dedication and practice, it’s top-notch. Every character has their own unique struggles to face, and an arc that they go through in trying to figure out what they want to do. Some of them are freshmen, just starting out on their journey, while others are seniors, facing the looming threat of the real world, and the prospect of having to put their entertaining skills to some practical use. At its core, it’s really no different than the anxieties that face every high schooler approaching graduation. In this way, I think even people who aren’t so artistically inclined will be able to relate to these kids. While it perhaps fails to always find that core of universality, the film is quite fun, and unquestionably worth checking out.
Photo courtesy of: Black Valley Films Website