×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘If You Build It’

Patrick Creadon's latest documentary is a nuanced portrait of experimental education in a destitute area of the American South.

With:

Emily Pilloton, Matthew Miller, Stevie Mizelle, Cameron Perry, Jamesha Thompson, Erick Bowen, Rodecoe Dunlow, Kerron Hayes, Anthony Johnson, CJ Robertson, Colin White, Alexia Williams.

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.

Film Review: 'If You Build It'

Reviewed online, West Hollywood, Jan. 3, 2014. (In AFI Docs, Hamptons, Full Frame film festivals.) Running time: 85 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary) A Long Shot Factory release. Produced by Christine O'Malley, Neal Baer.

Crew:

Directed by Patrick Creadon. Camera (color, HD), George Desort; editor, Nick Andert, Daniel J. Clark, Doug Blush; music, Peter Golub; sound, Clark; re-recording mixer, Jeremy Grody; animation, Brian Oakes, Christopher Chuang; associate producers, Clark, John Kessler, Allie Tarantino.

With:

Emily Pilloton, Matthew Miller, Stevie Mizelle, Cameron Perry, Jamesha Thompson, Erick Bowen, Rodecoe Dunlow, Kerron Hayes, Anthony Johnson, CJ Robertson, Colin White, Alexia Williams.

More Film

  • Come as You Are review

    SXSW Film Review: 'Come as You Are'

    The rare remake that’s actually a slight improvement on its predecessor, Richard Wong’s “Come as You Are” translates Geoffrey Enthoven’s 2011 Belgian “Hasta la Vista” to middle America. Other changes are less substantial, but this seriocomedy has a less formulaic feel than the original while remaining a crowd-pleasing buddy pic-caper with a soft-pedaled minority empowerment [...]

  • Strange Negotiations review

    SXSW Film Review: 'Strange Negotiations'

    In a era when some mainstream entertainers have transitioned to targeting faith-based audiences, David Bazan is moving in the other direction. The gifted songwriter’s ersatz band Pedro the Lion was perhaps the most successful Christian indie rock act of its time, and the first to significantly cross over to secular fans. Then he ditched that persona (and [...]

  • Bluebird review

    SXSW Film Review: ‘Bluebird’

    As affectionate as a love letter but as substantial as an infomercial, Brian Loschiavo’s “Bluebird” may be of most interest to casual and/or newly converted country music fans who have occasionally wondered about the songwriters behind the songs. There’s a better than even-money chance that anyone who’s a loyal and longtime aficionado of the musical [...]

  • ‘Wonder Park’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad

    ‘Wonder Park’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending for the Fourth Week in a Row

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV advertising attention analytics company iSpot.tv, Paramount Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the fourth week in row with “Wonder Park.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.18 million through Sunday for 1,718 national [...]

  • Michael B. Jordan Jordan Vogt-Roberts

    Film News Roundup: Michael B. Jordan, Jordan Vogt-Roberts Team for Monster Movie

    In today’s film news roundup, Michael B. Jordan is producing a creature feature, billiards champ Cisero Murphy is getting a movie, the sixth Terminator movie gets a title, and Graham King receives an honor. PROJECT UNVEILED More Reviews SXSW Film Review: 'Come as You Are' SXSW Film Review: 'Strange Negotiations' New Regency and Michael B. [...]

  • Nicolas Cage

    Nicolas Cage to Star in Martial Arts Actioner 'Jiu Jitsu'

    Nicolas Cage will star in the martial arts actioner “Jiu Jitsu,” based on the comic book of the same name. The cast will also include Alain Moussi, who stars in the “Kickboxer” franchise. Dimitri Logothetis is producing with Martin Barab and directing from a script he wrote with Jim McGrath. Highland Film Group is handling [...]

  • Chinese success of Thai film "Bad

    Chinese, Thai Shingles Pact for Co-Production Fund at FilMart

    A deal to establish a 100 million yuan ($14.9 million) co-production fund between China and Thailand was struck at FilMart on Tuesday to help launch TV and film projects that will appeal to Chinese and Southeast Asian audience. The deal that was struck by China’s Poly Film Investment Co., TW Capital from Thailand and Thai [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content