The opening frames of Pressure Cooker, a documentary debuting at Starz FilmCenter on Friday, July 31, serve the same sort of dish as Hell's Kitchen, Fox TV's restaurant survival test. Wilma Stephenson, a culinary-arts teacher at Frankford High School in inner-city Philadelphia, is seen barking at her cooking students like a drill instructor armed with a spatula instead of a firearm. But as events unfold under the sympathetic gaze of co-directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker, Stephenson becomes a secondary character whose main function is to guide and support three compelling protagonists: a football player who's as good at sautéeing as rushing the quarterback, an African immigrant saddled with an indifferent father, and a cheerleader whose go-getter facade obscures a history of depression. A scholarship competition frames the action, but the stakes are far higher than in the usual televised contest: The reward is a brighter future, not a pile of cash and some ego-stroking face time. As warm as it is rewarding, Pressure Cooker injects a reality-show premise with a heaping helping of real life.
The film heats up at 4:45 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. at Starz, in the Tivoli. Tickets are $6 to $9.50. Learn about future screenings and more at 303-595-3456 or www.denverfilm.org.