Chantel is in your face.
Chantel is in your ear.
And Chantel will be on your mind.
Chantel is "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," Leslie Harris' debut feature, which intends its title to be taken ironically. The truth of Chantel is that she isn't just another girl on the I.R.T. She's loud and slightly intimidating, and marginal to most other existences, someone to be avoided. The movie earnestly means to invest her with life and passion and make us see how special she is, and, by extension, how special all the young women on the I.R.T. are.
To that end, it's Harris' luckiest break that she gave the role to Ariyan Johnson who is terrific. Johnson makes Chantel so vivid with life, so utterly without artifice, she draws you in and makes you believe, not only in Chantel's self but in her soul.
Her Chantel knows all the patois, and has that street-hard, Brooklyn quality; she's got attitude to burn and you better not dis her, because she will fly at you with more fury than sense and the last word will be hers. Yet Chantel is smart. She works hard. She gets good grades. She carries her family responsibility like a lead yoke about her shoulders, without bitterness but only with the commitment to duty that is the highest form of love. And she has dreams: of being a doctor, of mattering to her life. Johnson gets all these textures, extraordinarily.
Most importantly, Johnson brings off the hardest trick of all. She stops and addresses the camera, like "Alfie," all those years ago. She makes brilliant connection with the lens of the camera, as if she sees through it, to you. It's an astonishment. (And all the more so when you realize that Johnson is from a bourgeoise arty family; her mother went to the Peabody!) If the movie were a one-woman show, she'd be the one woman.
The film around her, alas, is somewhat crudely conceived, not nearly so good as Johnson's performance. Harris is dogmatic, though unflinching.
Jewish viewers will likely cringe at a discomfiting scene in history class where Chantel lectures her clearly Jewish teacher ("Mr. Weinberg") on the historical irrelevance of the Holocaust as compared to the "ongoing holocaust against young black men in the streets of America." White viewers will cringe when Chantel, who works in Manhattan as a check-out girl and assistant store manager, dismantles a snooty white liberal racist on the job. The scene feels more like prejudice itself; white liberals may indeed be occasionally racist and more than occasionally classist, but Harris hasn't examined them closely enough to make this one anything other than an unbelievable stereotype.
Still, Harris tries to be truthful. This isn't any fairy tale. Chantel, with so much hope and possibility, yields to the blandishments of a slicker older youth, Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen), and ends up exactly where we thought she was too smart to end up: pregnant and dropped out.
Is she down? Is she out? If you know Chantel, you'll know the girl is never down and out.
"Just Another Girl on the I.R.T."
Starring Ariyan Johnson and Kevin
Directed by Leslie Harris.
Released by Miramax.