Pressure Cooker

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Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival

Inner-city Philadelphia high-school students compete for prestigious culinary school scholarships in "Pressure Cooker," which recently received a special jury commendation at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Appealing, if derivative, the doc's best bet for wider exposure in a contracting marketplace is probably a youth-oriented cabler. With backing from Participant Media, theatrical release remains a possibility.

At Philadelphia's Frankford High School, veteran teacher Wilma Stephenson runs the culinary arts program like a boot camp for would-be junior chefs. Brusque, demanding and vehemently focused on teaching kids how to concoct souffles, salads and sauces, she supervises a classroom kitchen of predominantly African American students from a variety of disadvantaged backgrounds.

Before her senior-year pupils can even think about making it to the preliminary cooking contest that qualifies them to compete for a variety of scholarships to some to the nation's top culinary institutions, they'll have to meet Stephenson's challenging standards first.

Co-directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker follow three seniors over two semesters in Stephenson's class as they prepare for the annual competition sponsored by the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program -- a nonprofit organization founded by Grausman's father in 1990 to provide career opportunities for high-schoolers nationwide.

Along the way, the kids face typical challenges with parents, siblings and the usual obstacles to their ambitions, but Grausman and Becker manage to render the relatively mundane fairly engaging, due largely to the students' charisma and determination.

The story arc follows a by-now characteristic path from set-up through preparation to final competition, although the culinary setting gives this familiar formula an appetizing twist. The digital production values are functional without drawing undue attention to the filmmaking, allowing the subjects really shine through.

Production company: Participant Media presents a Non Sequitur production
Directors: Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker
Producers: Jennifer Grausman
Executive Producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann
Directors of photography: Justin Schein, Leigh Iacobucci
Editor: Mark Becker
Sales agent: Participant Media
No rating, 99 minutes.

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