If You Build It
Runs Fri., March 14–Sun., March 16 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 86 minutes.
Northern liberal do-gooders come to a poor region of North Carolina to teach teenagers how to measure, design, and build things. Folks in Bertie County already know how to work with their hands, of course, since farming and industrial chicken ranching are the main forms of employment. But brain drain is an evident problem, so the local school superintendent hires Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller for a pilot program they call Studio H. There, skeptical students are encouraged to get their fingers dirty, make design sketches, and use power tools. Meanwhile, the school board kicks out its chief and cuts the studio’s funding.
This could be the plot for a fish-out-of-water comedy, only Emily and Matthew are already a couple, and Patrick Creadon’s earnest documentary is plainly aiming for inspiration, not laughs. Emily and Matthew are relentlessly cheerful and patient, though there are moments of exhaustion and doubt (they’re surviving on grant money). The kids are a typical bunch of teens, by turns rowdy and studious, all of them flattered to be treated like peers. (Creadon, previously the director of Wordplay, doesn’t gain access to their regular classes; nor does he interview the school board members, who’ve made other questionable decisions.)
The idea of reinventing shop class is a sound one, particularly when we’re trying to resurrect American manufacturing and train a new generation of skilled workers. Emily and Matthew are like emissaries from the Brooklyn maker movement of 3-D printers and artisans with MFAs. After two years in town, they clearly make a difference to their pupils and community. Yet in the film’s frustrating postscript—do any of these graduates have jobs, by the way?—we see how even these two committed idealists must go where the funding is. And that is far from Bertie County.