By Andrea Thompson
Damn straight this is a film Hollywood dare not do. Many films make similar claims to edginess, but the 1992 offering “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” earns it, simply for immersing itself so fully in the mindset and world of 17-year-old Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson). Movies about Black people coping with marginalization, most of which soon came to be known as “hood” or “ghetto” movies, had already become a thing, what with the success of “Juice” and especially “Boyz in the Hood.” But those films, and pretty much most of the others, were all about the men, and “Just Another Girl” has an unapologetically feminine perspective, from Chantel and her friends graphically (and stupidly) discussing sex to casually mentioning their periods.
We learn a few things about Chantel right away, mostly that she's a smart, driven teenager who lives in Brooklyn during a time when that meant something different. This is the 90s, so people are using tokens on the subway (the I.R.T. of the title refers to a New York subway line) and dealing with what looks like the earliest stages of gentrification. Chantel also gets good grades, and is trying to graduate early so she can go to college and become a doctor. She confidently speaks her mind, asking why the struggles of Black people today aren't addressed, and takes pride in talking tough when pushed.
Chantel also constantly breaks the fourth wall as she speaks directly to us of her determination to be different than everyone around her, from her classmates who are constantly failing, dropping out, or getting pregnant, to her own parents. They clearly love each other and their children, but the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, coupled with the lack of opportunities and their opposing work schedules, shows in vicious arguments which occasionally arise. “That's not gonna be me,” Chantel tells us. “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” makes a good case for her momentum. Chantel is smart, and she has the grades to graduate early and head to college.
She's also dangerously ignorant the way 17-year-olds generally are. She may be intelligent and confident enough to call out the injustice she sees and excel in school, but her lack of experience also leads her to make the same mistakes many other kids her age do. Faster than you can say you dumb kid, she's ditching her boyfriend and her friends to hang out with the smooth-talking Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen) and having unprotected sex with him. When she vomits in the bathroom shortly after, she's too smart not to know what it means, but she still can't bring herself to make a decision. Deciding she has better things to do, Chantel carries on as usual and employs various tricks to hide her pregnancy.
As for Ty, although he initially reacts angrily when Chantel tells him the news, he does try to help. He wants her to have an abortion, but he never tries to force her to do anything. It is Chantel who screws things up even further by using the money he gives her to go on a shopping spree with her friend. He has every right to be angry with her, because Chantel also never asks for help, probably because she doesn't know how. She's so invested in keeping up a tough front that she doesn't know how to be vulnerable. When she goes into a very graphic, bloody labor at Ty's place, his concern is for her. Chantel is the one who persuades him to take a horrific step to ensure her future, and he undoes the deed far before she regrets her request and tries to do the right thing.
Director Leslie Harris not only shot the film on a shoestring budget of $130,00 in 17 days, she ran out of money during the editing process, partly because she refused to give in to pressure by studio execs to make Ty a drug dealer. After generous donations from author Terry McMillan and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, “Just Another Girl” went on to win the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. If there were any justice in the world, Harris would've gone on to have a prolific career, but she hasn't made another feature film since. “Just Another Girl” seems to be enjoying a kind of rediscovery in recent years, and Chantel herself remains a heroine who refuses to be pigeonholed, even if many reviewers tried to dismiss her as merely a younger version of the stereotypical angry black woman. Her pregnancy compromises the future she envisioned for herself, but it by no means ends it. Young Black women coming of age on-screen also seem to be less and less rare, with films like “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Pariah,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Precious,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Jezebel.” Yet for some, Chantel will always be the first heroine where they were able to see themselves.