It’s no accident that the title of Patrick Creadon’s latest documentary, “If You Build It,” leaves out the second half of the famed “Field of Dreams” quote it borrows. There’s no place for reassuring promises that everything will work out in this nuanced portrait of experimental education in a destitute area of the American South. Similarly, there’s no guarantee that just because a documentary is well crafted and unexpectedly moving, it will find an audience in theatrical release without an easy marketing hook. Expect more support in ancillary, spurred by word of mouth from those swept up by the film’s alternately inspiring and frustrating chain of events.
Creadon — who previously chronicled crossword-puzzle enthusiasts in “Wordplay” and startling statistics about the national debt in “I.O.U.S.A.” — spends a little over one year with gung ho “designer-activist” Emily Pilloton and her professional and romantic partner, Matthew Miller, as they embark on an ambitious alternative education project in rural Bertie County, N.C. Dubbed “Studio H” and focused on “humanity, habitats, health and happiness,” the concept is basically shop class with a social conscience and an added emphasis on problem solving through design. Ten high-school juniors (six white and four black, including two girls) are tapped to participate, and the pic initially suggests one of those rousing, if often problematic, portraits of maverick educators motivating neglected kids.
Real life has a way of upending sentimental formula, and “If You Build It” wisely gives equal weight to the setbacks as well as the successes of Studio H. The first crisis hits when the superintendent who brought Pilloton and Miller to the district — Chip Zullinger — is forced to resign over conflicts with the school board. With the board cutting back on Zullinger’s programs, Pilloton and Miller volunteer to waive their salaries in order to keep Studio H going. Living off credit and grants, they find that the unforeseen financial burden takes a toll on both the project and their relationship.
Pic maintains a clear-eyed view of Pilloton and Miller’s well-intentioned but underappreciated efforts, shaped in part by a disappointing chapter from Miller’s past: A home he built as a college thesis project was gifted to a needy family, which wound up getting evicted after failing to pay utility and insurance bills. In order to give the students and the community a personal stake in the work of Studio H, the final class project involves the design and construction of a structure for a local farmers market, which would provide much-needed jobs and access to fresh produce.
Following the quirky competition-driven “Wordplay” and the enhanced PowerPoint presentation of “I.O.U.S.A.,” Creadon is shaping up to be an unpredictable yet dependably intelligent documentarian. He’s given himself a formidable challenge here by telling the story of two teachers, 10 students and one community in a tight 80-minute timeframe. While “If You Build It” rarely provides more than snapshots into the lives of its subjects, the scattered pieces come together to form a thoughtful examination of the need to keep students engaged with education, and the challenges that arise in attempting anything against the grain.
A bittersweet ending offers both victory and defeat, but closes on a note of hard-won optimism. In keeping with her project’s practical approach, Pilloton says the goal was always to “plant small seeds in our students that years from now could result in a new kind of resource.” The same can be said for the film.
Tech credits, highlighted by Brian Oakes and Christopher Chuang’s playful animations, are polished.