Mixing ferocity with tenderness, delicacy with tenacity, “Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go” grapples with the subject of the Mulberry Bush School, an Oxford education/treatment facility for emotionally disturbed children. Although the subject matter could have resulted in an exploitative, sensational and/or superficial film, helmer Kim Longinotto’s gift for unobtrusive observation and unblinking purpose makes for a docu of uncompromised integrity and edge-of-the seat drama. Limited arthouse exposure seems likely, but “Hold Me” should thrive on the festival circuit, and may even become a kind of touchstone of child psychology and progressive education.
The knotty ethical issue that arises here is the exposure onscreen of some extremely troubled children — all boys in this case — who display a virtually uncontrollable, feral anger under stress and make the work of their teachers and counselors seem nearly miraculous. Writhing, spitting and striking out against their supervisors, the kids are never punished, per se, but instead are safely restrained and consoled until they regain something close to composure.
The teachers are saintly in their tolerance; the children are wild in their wrath. The effect is that of a trip into a frighteningly unhinged world where any sense of control is always a few small steps from disintegration.
Should the kids even be onscreen, despite the obvious consent of the parents who appear in the film? Arguably, yes; the details of their pasts are never revealed (there are certain allusions to histories of domestic violence and abuse, but no hard facts), and the kids are portrayed not only at their worst, but also at their best: The violence a boy is capable of is never construed as his true nature, but as something to be overcome.
Longinotto takes a snapshot approach, skipping from confrontation to confrontation, cutting to some pastoral landscape so viewers can catch their breath before plunging back into the fray. All this provides a breathless ride through the atmosphere, techniques and personalities at play at Mulberry, where the staff-to-student ratio is 108 to 40. It doesn’t seem like enough.
“With a few words, I could change the world,” says a pugnacious charmer named Alex; with a few pictures, “Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go” is trying to do the same.
Production values, especially Longinotto’s virtually combat-style photography, are superb, although subtitling would make certain scenes more intelligible.