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Leap of Faith.

With the critical and commercial success of Boyz N the Hood, Straight Out of Brooklyn, Juice, New Jack City, and other films made by young black directors reflecting black urban life, films by and about young black women would seem inevitable. (Then again, given the paucity of strong leading characters for women of any race in current films, maybe not.) Hollywood hasn't exactly been champing at the bit - which may be just as well, because the market-obsessed studios probably wouldn't have produced anything as nuanced and honest as Leslie Harris' independent feature, just Another Girl on the I.R.T

Chantel (Ariyan Johnson) is a smart, proud Brooklyn teenager with goals. Determined to get out of the projects and into a brownstone, she plans to graduate from high school at the end of her junior year, enter college, and go on to medical school. She gets excellent grades and works part-time at a Manhattan gourmet-food shop.

But Chantel's self-confidence tends toward hubris. Her attitude is as in-your-face as the hip-hop music of the soundtrack. Her principal refuses to let her graduate early because of her arrogant attitude toward her teachers. And her refusal to listen to anyone about anything leads her right into the same traps she wanted to avoid.

Working with a minimal budget (augmented with contributions from Michael Moore, the director of Roger and Me; Nelson George, Village Voice rap-music columnist; and Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale), first-time writer/producer/director Harris has made a film that plays to your expectations only to overturn them. Neither an icon nor a didactic bad example, Chantel is simply a girl who struggles with the human condition and comes up short, at least this time around. Despite a few stereotypes, most of Harris' other characters are drawn with similar depth and equal compassion. It will be a shame if Just Another Girl is marketed solely to teens; it deserves a wider audience.

Leap of Faith is the usual mugwumpery that results every time Hollywood decides to deal with religion. Steve Martin stars as Jonas Nightengale, a cynical sideshow preacher who uses modern technology and old-fashioned hucksterism to dazzle the rubes into emptying their wallets for the Lord. The film never lets us into the perspective of Nightengale's audience to see how persuasive this message can be to people hungry to hear it. That's because the script has a real miracle lined up - one that heals the afflicted, aids the course of true love (symbolized by a flock of butterflies), and sends unloved orphan Jonas onto the straight-and-narrow path.

Like the 1989 hit Field of Dreams, Leap of Faith takes the easy way out, culminating in a fuzzball of vague spirituality that couldn't possibly appeal to anyone who takes a minute to think it through after the French horns and gospel chorus of the finale have finally faded out.

M. Faust is a freelance writer who has reviewed thousands of films for the books Video Movie Guide, Movies on TV, and The Complete Guide to Video-cassette Movies. His article, "The Gospel According to Michael Medved," appeared in the January/February 1993 issue of The Humanist.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Faust, M.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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