“This is not about electing me to Congress,” says Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just before her debate versus longstanding New York Rep. Joe Crowley. “This is about electing us to Congress.” By us, she means the insurrectionist progressives at the center of filmmaker Rachel Lears’ emotional documentary “Knock Down the House,” which follows her and three other grassroots female candidates challenging local male Democratic incumbents in the 2018 Democratic primary.
Ocasio-Cortez has the most name recognition of the bunch, and the doc partially serves as a “Dreams From My Father”-type personal memoir for a millennial politician who has no need to publish a book as long as she has Instagram and Twitter. But the power of the film is that Ocasio-Cortez is not the only exceptional woman here. Lears introduces audiences to Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter from Coal City, West Virginia who has witnessed firsthand how pollutants have given her neighbors cancer; Cori Bush, a St. Louis nurse who rushed to help the wounded during the Ferguson, Mo., riots; and Amy Vilela, a Nevada mom who lost her 22-year-old daughter to a brain clot when a hospital turned the girl away for lack of health insurance.
The four candidates come from different corners of America but represent the same core ideals: They refuse corporate PAC donations and carry the mantle of the working-class; they support Medicare for all and won’t kowtow to the Democratic Party establishment. (Bernie Sanders isn’t mentioned, but he haunts the film on numerous stickers and an out-of-focus book cover given prominent placement on a background shelf.) For fans of these women’s progressive policies, Lears could have simply made a feature-length campaign commercial. All four are fantastically quotable, from Swearengin grousing that outsiders think of Appalachia as “no teeth, no shoes, no brains,” to a near-tears Vilela on Election Day exhaling, “We did this without knowing shit!” That Lears and co-writer Robin Blotnick made a real movie with intelligent camerawork and storytelling on a budget so small that they each pulled double duty as DP and editor, respectively, is a tribute to the energy of every woman who pledged that in 2018 they would make a difference.
Vilela, Swearengin and Bush could use more time in the film’s spotlight. Still, you can’t blame “Knock Down the House” for seizing on its good fortune to have begun following Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign even before the 28-year-old waitress earned her name on the ballot. She needed slightly more than 1,000 signatures to qualify; she gathered 10,000, under the assumption that the election board — all of whom, she notes, were appointed by Crowley — would toss out as many as possible. Overperformance is her mantra. “For every 10 rejections, you get one acceptance, and that’s how you win everything,” she insists to her niece as they hand out flyers on the sidewalk. Later, she consoles one of her colleagues who lost with, “It’s just the reality that in order for one of us to make it through, a thousand of us have to try.”
That message comes before her own shocking primary victory. Lears’ access to Ocasio-Cortez’s six month campaign is incredible. “Knock Down the House” is there as she puts on her makeup, lugs ice at her day job (where she appears to fix a mean margarita), frets that her voice goes up an octave when she gets nervous, and sighs that male candidates need only two outfits: a suit or a shirt with rolled-up sleeves.
Lears is there in the cramped, sloppy apartment Ocasio-Cortez shares with her supportive boyfriend, and at that first debate with Crowley where he didn’t even bother to show up. As his proxy fumblingly defends his vote for the Iraq War, Ocasio-Cortez rallies the crowd to her side, and afterward they crush around her with their individual concerns as though no one’s bothered to listen to them for years. Crowley shows up for the second and third debates, where Lears observes a comedy payoff: The veteran representative, realizing this young woman is winning over the room, anxiously rolls up his sleeves.
“Knock Down the House” has a clear political agenda. It wants to promote the hard work, courage and progressive policies of these women, who have all experienced financial hardship. Still, the film lets its subjects do the talking instead of cluttering things with statistics. The approach allows the women’s messages to take centerstage and show their determination; Bush has already filed to run again in 2020. And no one can contextualize Ocasio-Cortez better than Ocasio-Cortez. Ticking off all the reasons why no Democrat dared to oppose Crowley in the primaries in 14 years, she concludes that the only possible challenger who could defeat him is “an insurgent outsider candidate that’s a woman of color from the Bronx.” Then she grins.