Hot-button subject will be enough to stoke curiosity for “The Education of Shelby Knox,” about a conservative Southern Baptist teen who’s an impassioned advocate for sex education in public high schools. Winner of a well-deserved prize for docu cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival, pic might generate interest in limited theatrical runs and noncommercial playdates as well as in fest and pubcast venues.
Helmers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt spent roughly three years focusing on Knox, a Lubbock, Texas, girl. While supporting her family credo — “God, family and country, in that order!” — she nonetheless feels compelled to speak out on issues close to her heart. Introed as a 15-year-old sophomore, Knox makes it clear from get-go that she’s not advocating promiscuity. Indeed, pic includes footage of her taking part in a religious-oriented “True Love Waits” abstinence program aimed at encouraging teens to remain chaste until marriage. But she recognizes abstinence isn’t for everyone, and that in a community with distressingly high rates of teen pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases, a little education might help a lot.
Predictably, Shelby’s attitude places her in conflict with school and religious leaders. Surprisingly, most of her adult opponents are respectful of her arguments, even as they earnestly and forcefully disagree. Local pastor Ed Ainsworth, a charismatic figure behind the “True Love Waits” movement, comes off as thoroughly sincere, if a tad condescending, as he backs abstinence as the only sex education worth implementing in Lubbock schools. Occasionally, however, he undercuts himself. During a conversation with Shelby, Ainsworth warns she might be “too tolerant.” Christianity, he advises proudly, “is the most intolerant religion in the world.”
Filmmakers smoothly structure material into an involving coming-of-age narrative, following Knox as she develops activist tendencies during a stint with the local Youth Commission, where she clashes with smooth-talking Corey Nichols, a politically ambitious rival who’s more of a consensus-builder. Eventually, Knox breaks from the commission to support a new cause, a gay-straight alliance with a gay-rights agenda. Through it all, her conservative Republican parents offer strong support and unconditional love, clearly admiring their daughter’s feisty spirit.
At various points in “Education of Shelby Knox,” even sympathetic viewers may be troubled by suspicions that, a la the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, behavior was influenced by the presence of a camera crew. During a few heated moments in the Knox household, and throughout Shelby’s intense face-off with an adult critic who questions her religious commitment, the aud can’t help wondering if conversations would be quite so civil — and if Shelby would be allowed so much leeway — had documentarians not been visible recording every word.
Overall, however, pic impresses as balanced and truthful. Lipschutz and Rosenblatt take care to keep Knox from seeming too strident or single-minded by providing amusing details to indicate the full range of her interests. A trained singer, Knox admits she would love to perform some day in a stage production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Even so, the finale suggests that, during the next several years, she’ll be raising consciousness among her peers more often than she’ll be raising her voice in song.