Despite bureaucratic frustrations, an innovative high-school program elevates lives in 'If You Build It'
For the students — despite varying discipline, some admittedly due to the oppressively hot weather during actual market construction — Studio H is a complete win, empowering and inspiring, engaging like nothing else available at school. The completed market is, it seems, a triumph, generating new businesses and jobs even outside its own roof. Yet even after a successful second academic year, the school board again declines to budget salaries for Pilloton and Miller. Maybe, as the latter learned after building a "gift" house in Detroit that ended up abandoned and trashed, people simply can't appreciate, feel a sense of ownership or responsibility toward something they've been given for free.
At least that's the lesson suggested by Patrick Creadon's documentary. But for a movie about a program that in turn is about rebuilding communities, If You Build It doesn't really seem interested in this particular community. Of course we get the usual establishing shots indicating that, yes, this is a certifiable Hicksville. But we never hear from school board members, from Zullinger after he's fired, or from parents aside from the grateful ones of Project H students. When we see kids passively digesting various curricula at computer monitors (even phys ed is partly online), we're left to assume this is simply a matter of bad, even stupid adult judgment: Can't they see these teenagers are dangerously unengaged?
On the other hand, maybe Bertie County simply doesn't have money for more than a bare minimum of on-site teaching staff. Maybe the supe's innovations didn't fly with the board because they meant cutting other essential programs. Who knows? We don't, because that kind of key info isn't here. Nor, really, is much character insight — we see little of the students' lives outside class, and the Studio H duo (partners personally as well as professionally) come off a bit colorlessly, because they're not viewed very fully, either.
Despite these flaws, If You Build It nonetheless demonstrates how public education still has near-infinite potential to shape lives and whole communities for the better — at least if it pretty much does a full 180 from the direction it's been headed in for some time. Pilloton and Miller are currently doing their thing at a charter school right here, in Berkeley. That's great, but also somewhat disappointing, because it's precisely places like Bertie County that need their like so much more critically, and are drastically less likely to get it. *
IF YOU BUILD IT opens Fri/28 in Bay Area theaters.