Like most inspiring inner-city-school stories, Pressure Cooker (a real-life one) revolves around a fantastically rude teacher. Wilma Stephenson has a screech to wilt even the most headstrong North Philly teen; she’s an old-school disciplinarian who never got the memo about political correctness. When not calling them “lowlife punks,” Stephenson is teaching her kids culinary arts, very successfully, in a quest for thousands of dollars in college scholarships. The mantras that come out of her mouth take on the tenor of life advice: “Get your brain upscale!” and “That’s so ghetto!” (about a shoddily prepared dish) represent the harsh wisdom that can come only from one urban survivor to another.
A predictable crowd-pleaser, Pressure Cooker works best in Stephenson’s kitchen, where the martial browbeating has a purpose. Straying, like a good lefty doc does, into home territory, the film loses a little focus in the almost-clich households of the students: strong-willed Erica, a guardian angel to her blind younger sister; hardworking African immigrant Fatoumata; and Tyree, a gentle giant of a football star who hopes to excel at slicing potatoes into tournes. At times, you wish the directors were more challenging of their premises; these graduating seniors are learning the value of precision, yes, but also, subtly, how to serve. Is that escape enough?—Joshua Rothkopf
Now playing; IFC. Find showtimes