A real life version of Fame on the west coast, Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s coming-of-age documentary Fame High shows us the pressures of pursuing an arts education and career at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Shot over a period of sixteen months, the film follows four students as they battle expectations, desires, talent, hard work, and all the other teenage stuff us normal kids went through too. LACHSA has a 95% rate for college enrollment and prepares its students for the fierce competition inherent to reaching their dreams of earning a paycheck by doing what they love. Potential stardom is a goal for another day—one four years here and many after provide a huge boost to achieve. Graduation is their first and most crucial step towards success.
But that should be a given, right? In a world populated by “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent”, overnight fame is always within arm’s reach. Why wouldn’t a talented youth forego the nonsense of Algebra and Chemistry when Simon Cowell can give his stamp of approval now? It’s tough to watch strangers effortlessly prove victorious at something you’ve worked so hard to merely earn an opportunity. But honestly, how many “winners” have truly gone on to greatness and not simply a flash-in-the-pan fifteen minutes? For real credibility and appreciation you must go through the process of learning your field, breaking it down, and creating in high-pressure situations. Josh Groban, Clea Duvall, and Anthony Anderson are proof of what a LACHSA education can bring and inspirations for those willing to follow.
Wanting it isn’t enough, though. We can fantasize our names in big lights all we want, but nothing will come of it unless we put in the time and effort. This is a concept each student goes into high school understanding, but also one easily shoved aside when shortcuts present themselves. Whether a chance to miss three weeks of school to understudy professionally in a Mark Taper Forum production or skipping class to audition for gigs in full awareness of your failing grades, we must heavily weigh every decision. Nothing is a slam-dunk—in fact most things are complete wasted opportunities. But when you’re so driven and the pressures of life and family mount, it’s almost impossible to say no. One wrong move can derail everything.
I’m not sure how the subjects Kennedy chose to shadow were selected, but he couldn’t have asked for more dramatic intrigue. Zak—a freshman jazz pianist—has the talent to go anywhere, but also a controlling father who pushed him onto his path. At thirteen years old he’s finally realizing he’s been doing it all for a man who tapes photos of Lexuses on the wall as a goal to work towards. Until he decides it’s the life he wants too, every open door from day one will slam shut forever. On the flipside, fellow first-year theater major Ruby has wanted to act since the age of seven. With a producer father and opportunities everywhere she turns, though, sometimes taking a step back is necessary to appreciate exactly what is needed.
And as we watch those two struggle to find a balance in this new world of high expectations, we catch a glimpse of a couple seniors readying to take the next step. For Grace dancing has been a passion she’s fought to achieve her whole life in opposition to her Korean immigrant parents’ desire for their children to find economically stable occupations. Intent on attending Julliard the following year, she must practice like she’s never done before in styles she’d always been afraid to dance while also reconciling the lustful frustrations of a teen forbidden to date. But if true guilt-heavy pressure is what you want, look no further than singer/songwriter Brittany and her loving Mom separating themselves by two thousand miles from Dad and sisters so she can follow her dream.
An overworked son of an overbearing Dad, the outgoing daughter of two successful parents who is used to eating dinner alone, and two young women going all-in with their futures to the point of altering their family dynamic—each teenager has dove into the deep end of a life containing decisions most kids their age won’t know exist until halfway through college. They juggle hormones, cute boys, costume parties, rejection, failing grades, and the disappointment of those they love all for a chance to prove the sacrifice was worth it. We easily dismiss fictional accounts of such experiences as well as the pampered, highly produced reality shows on primetime as people joining a circus who don’t deserve our empathy or pity. Watching it happen to real kids makes us realize they’re no different than us.
And while all the personal drama exists to let us make holier than though snap judgments without a full understanding of the situation—Zak and his Dad’s relationship is so much more complex than initially assumed—Fame High is ultimately a tale of conquering insurmountable odds. A brilliant epilogue fast-forwarding through time on Facebook shows each kid four years later to tell us if the fight was worth the effort. We may not all be lucky enough to live the exact dream we had, but to not try means to never know how close we could have gotten. Media images of spoiled brats getting fame and fortune handed to them on a platter can sometimes be gross exaggerations and it’s nice to see those that are can be as deserving as the quartet depicted here.
courtesy of Black Valley Films