Everybody’s defying the odds in “Zoned In,” an up-from-poverty striver story whose subject, Daniel “Sukie” Nartey II, makes it from the South Bronx to the Ivy League, leaving an indelible imprint of personality wherever he goes. That Nartey’s p.o.v. dominates the movie so much ought to make it blinkered and boring — this much of almost anyone probably would. But the music, visual choices and editing rhythms help make “Zoned In” a human-interest story with an engine underneath it. Theatrical seems unlikely, just as TV seems inevitable.
Nartey proves you can go home again — the film opens with him teaching a class at his troubled old Bronx high school, Taft, so you know where the docu’s headed. But as with so many journeys, the motion itself is the critical element.
As helmer Daniela Zanzotto picks up what will be a nine-years-in-the-making story, Nartey’s family is moving from a life of crime in North Carolina (two older brothers are in prison) to the Bronx. There, the Narteys will spend seven months in a shelter while trying for a fresh start.
Their story could have gone in any number of tragic directions, but high schooler Sukie gets the education bug, feeling only that will allow him to break free of the Bronx. “All my life,” he says resolutely, “I’m not going to be here.”
Sukie gets to Brown U., where he finds himself a stranger in a strange land. People look at him as “ghetto,” and his rather radical political interpretation of history isn’t going to fly with the Brown faculty.
Wisely, Zanzotto lets Nartey have his say without too much questioning, or too many contrasting perspectives. The viewer gets a Sukie Nartey view of the world, and that is what’s intriguing — not whether Brown is somehow wrong, but how difficult it is for Sukie, who perceives he doesn’t belong there.
Which is not to say that Brown doesn’t somehow contribute to Nartey’s discomfort. But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about Nartey’s view of the world — and how hard it is for even the smartest denizen of the social underclass to escape the psychological shackles that were forged generations before.
And Nartey isn’t some clueless wonder. “I won’t let myself enjoy it,” he admits, talking of the Brown experience. He doesn’t want to go home and still be at Brown in his head, he says. In addition, he doesn’t want to be part of a community where people “discover their blackness through African-American history class.”
Zanzotto doesn’t include in her film what exactly it is that Nartey objects to — we don’t get confrontations with other students or teachers, or instances of anti-Nartey-ism. She will likely be criticized for that.
But this is a psychological portrait, one far more delicate than the hip-hop beat of the soundtrack would let on. And like an Old Master portrait, the subject reveals more and more the longer we study him. Zanzotto may not challenge Nartey. But she certainly challenges the viewer.
Production values, especially the camerawork, are often top-notch.