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Originally published July 9, 2009 at 3:34 PM | Page modified July 9, 2009 at 3:35 PM

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Movie review

'Pressure Cooker's' sizzlin' with class

"Pressure Cooker" is an inspirational documentary that focuses on a unique teacher's tough-love approach to teaching culinary arts at an all-black high school in Philadelphia.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Pressure Cooker," a documentary directed by Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker. 99 minutes. Not rated; contains brief mild language. Northwest Film Forum; see Page 17.

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There's not a school in the world that wouldn't benefit from a teacher like Wilma Stephenson.

As the culinary-arts instructor at the all-black Frankford High School in Philadelphia, Stephenson is a force to be reckoned with. For 38 years, she's been both beloved and notorious for her tough-love approach. While some of her students may chafe at her in-your-face attitude, you won't find anyone in her kitchen classroom who doesn't respect and respond favorably to her compassionate ferocity.

When Stephenson, who is also African American, remarks that a student's behavior or kitchen technique is "so ghetto," it's not a put-down but an admonishment to rise above one's circumstances, to pursue perfection as a way of making dreams come true. Notes one student in this inspirational documentary, if you make a mistake in Stephenson's class, you'd better not make it twice.

As Stephenson's latest class prepares for careers as chefs and restaurateurs, it's no surprise that they all perform admirably in a citywide scholarship competition sponsored by the nonprofit Careers Through Culinary Arts Program. They've been driven to excel with a combination of no-nonsense affection and uncompromising attention to detail.

Over the course of one school year, filmmakers Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker focus on three students who must juggle conflicting priorities, familial obligations and their own typically teenage uncertainties. Along the way, this easygoing, frequently humorous film shapes up to be a fitting companion to last year's "Frontrunners," a similarly revealing study of high-school ambition.

Shown as part of Northwest Film Forum's "Family Frames" series, "Pressure Cooker" is not about pressure so much as clarity of purpose. It's about a unique teacher's way of building confidence and pride, with results that joyously speak for themselves.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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