There’s certainly a sense that directors and parents Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson are striving for something akin to Steve James’ Hoop Dreams with this 13-year long look at their son and one of his friends trying to navigate their way through a predominantly white private school in Brooklyn. While there are undoubtedly some intriguing personal moments and revelations about a broken educational system along the way, Brewster and Stephenson spend far too long getting to them, and the first hour of this 145-minute Sundance Special Jury Prize winning production sadly reeks of the very kind of privilege they are looking to subvert. And to be quite frank, the very fact that they are following their own son and clearly exploiting him for their own film makes me look at the whole thing in a less than serious light.
Idris, the son of Joe and Michelle, and his friend Seun (who has decidedly more working class parents as opposed to Joe and Michele’s more analytical and intellectual leanings) are followed from their first day of Kindergarten at the prestigious Dalton School through to the end of high school. Idris continues on at the academy despite having anxiety issues that sometimes cause him great frustration, while Seun deals with dyslexia and is forced to go to public school following eighth grade after not passing muster on a standardized test.
Considering these two kids are already caught between their own privilege to even go to a private school in the first place and societal prejudices that make both students feel less than worthy, Brewster and Stephenson seem to have a hard time initially trying to find out who both kids are as people. Instead of just focusing on them (or even just Seun, who is the vastly more interesting of the two), the directors instead spend far too much time complaining about how they’re already uncomfortable to send their son to school with “a bunch of disaffected white kids.” That would be understandable, but until their own son hits high school and he can do a lot more thinking for himself, there’s something insidious about the filmmaking in play.
For example, watching Idris get frustrated about a book report that he has fallen behind on getting done raises numerous questions. Clearly Idris feels bad about it, but it’s also known to anyone watching the film that one of the parents (Joe) has to be holding the camera. Then the very next shot is Michele chastising her son for not doing his work. Clearly Joe and Michele are more content to try and manipulate the situation to fit their own sense of what the film should be, or else they would have tried to help him before this point. It’s frustrating and lends an icky pall to everything that has to deal with their own child that makes things feel unnecessarily skewed instead of highlighting a problem that through Seun (whom they can’t control as a subject) is clearly a major issue.
Thankfully, Seun’s story takes more precedence in the film’s vastly better second half, and both young men have struggles more in line with the everyday high school experience, but within an educational system that seems far too content to write off young black males as lost causes at any level, regardless of how much is spent on their learning by parents. Things get heavy (especially for Seun), and the high expectations placed on them only amplify as they gear up towards a push to go to college. It naturally becomes the film that Joe and Michele through self-insertion were trying too hard to create at first. It’s clear that there’s a racial issue that needs to be addressed, but I’m not convinced this is the healthiest way of bringing that to light.
Directors Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson will conduct Skype Q&As following the 12:30pm screening on Saturday, January 4th and the 2:45pm screening on Sunday, January 5th.
Although it feels like it would be a bit more at home on television, the sporting documentary Desert Runners is an affecting and effective crowd pleaser that looks at the somewhat insane concept of competing in four “supermarathons” over the course of a calendar year.
Running organization RacingThePlanet hosts four epically long, multiple day races throughout the year that take place in the harshest deserts in the world: The Aticama, the Gobi, the Sahara, and Antarctica. Director Jennifer Steinman follows four runners as they try for the grand slam, competing in every race in a single year when one is more than enough to take its toll on any human body. Dave is an Irishman trying to be the oldest person to complete the circuit and who has never quite overcome a childhood that left some considerable scars. Samantha is a 25-year old Australian law student trying to push herself, who will form a sweet friendship and suffer the film’s most terrifyingly unexpected setback on her journey. Ricky is a somewhat brash American ex-pat living in the UK who’s flabbergasted that he’s feeling winded going up flights of stairs only into his early 30s. Tremaine is a former British special forces soldier and current security and weapons training guru, who’s also the sweetest of the bunch: a single father of two racing in memory of his late wife that’s seemingly at odds with the man he used to be.
The characters are rich, likeable, and most importantly they’re never made to look like major competitors. All of them are novices simply looking to challenge themselves rather than win any of the races, making this feel a lot more human than most sports documentaries would normally end up being. It shows the psychological and physical toll these intense races can take on people who often have to deal with extreme temperatures, sand dunes as tall as the Empire State building, and 13 hours in the blazing hot sun without any shade. But they definitely aren’t thrill seekers. These people are searching for a lot more than glory and press, and that’s what makes the film special and engaging.
Jennifer Steinman with conduct Skype Q&As following the 9:00pm screening on Friday, January 3rd and the 6:00pm screening on Saturday, January 4th.
More than Honey
Markus Imhoof takes a look at the astoundingly frightening deaths and disappearances of honeybees and pollinators in this dry, but exquisitely photographed doc that suggests over farming and age old controlling techniques are taking their toll on insects that are responsible for the creation of two-thirds of the food we consume.
Looking at farmers and beekeepers in Europe and America, Imhoof discusses how pesticides, farming techniques, bacteria, and transport have created a once important wild insect that’s now akin to a domesticated pet incapable of staying alive on its own without human support.
It’s a decidedly overlooked and pressing issue, and you’ll learn quite a bit about how bees function both inside and outside of the modern farming community. That’s all that can really be said about this one, but it’s definitely informative and well researched. The main reason to check it out, however, are the incredible close-ups inside hives and honeycombs that are simply stunning to look at.
Also at The Bloor this week:
The New Year also brings the first installment of the Doc Soup series, with the Canadian premiere of A Fragile Trust on Wednesday the 8th at 6:30 and 9:15pm and Thursday the 9th at 6:45pm. Director Samantha Grant will be in attendance for all shows to talk about her look at disgraced journalist Jayson Blair, who in 2003 was busted for plagiarizing while working at The New York Times.