Wilma Stephenson runs her high-school culinary-arts class like a Marine sergeant: She's loud, cranky, and prone to threatening bodily harm. Stephenson, a central figure in co-directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker's likable, straightforward Pressure Cooker, is a slacker's nightmare and a nerd's masochistic dream. For her students at a northeastern Philadelphia school, she might also be their ticket out of stifling homes and a dead-end neighborhood. Pressure Cooker focuses on three seniors taking Stephenson's class to prepare for the Culinary Institute of America's scholarship competition: Fatoumata, a recent immigrant from Africa who longs to escape her oppressive father; Tyree, a football player hoping to secure a future not only for himself but for his single mom; and Erica, a young woman who after a lifetime of caring for her blind sister has decided to get hers. The intersection of food and identity is briefly explored, and the prep/exam sequences have a tension and charm that keep the film moving toward its literally rewarding climax. Stephenson looms largest as a reminder of what the right teacher can mean to a kid looking for a way out; it takes a strong woman and a special grace not only to let her protégés go, year after year, but to practically shove them out the door.
Culinary students compete.
Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., July 10–Thurs., July 16. Not rated. 99 minutes.