Steeped in the smell of tacos and burning sugar cane, the sights and sounds of Pahokee, Florida, are portrayed with humid specificity in Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan’s documentary — yet its story will be entirely familiar to anyone who is, or was, a small-town teenager yearning for a bigger pond. Taking the form of a cinematic yearbook, documenting the trials of four senior-year students as they seek the most secure path to graduation and beyond, “Pahokee” alternates between Wiseman-style community observation and less detached, more affectionate character portraiture, notably via the subjects’ cellphone video diaries. The result is uneven as a social study, skipping abruptly past certain key local events, but lively and rousing as a generational snapshot, buoyed by the lovable, resilient kids at its heart.
Prior to “Pahokee,” South Florida-based duo Lucas and Bresnan had already make a strong impression on the international festival circuit with a series of distinctive documentary shorts — several of them Pahokee-set —including last year’s “Skip Day,” which won top honors in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Their first feature-length effort, “Pahokee” is a direct extension of “Skip Day,” which introduced some of the high schoolers whose stories are expanded here; existing fans of the directors’ work are unlikely to be disappointed by the new film’s infectious blend of social realism and gentle sentimentality. Following a premiere in competition at Sundance, the film has since booked SXSW and taken the prize for best homegrown feature at the Miami Film Festival. Distribution prospects, particularly in the streaming realm, look perky.
The filmmakers have an existing relationship with their chosen turf is felt in the warm, unforced authenticity with which Pahokee’s modest geography and human makeup are laid out on screen — even if certain aspects of the region could stand a little more scrutiny within a roomy two-hour runtime. Those who haven’t seen their 2017 short “The Rabbit Hunt,” centred on the local harvesting and burning of sugar crops, might be left curious about Pahokee’s primary agricultural industry, which serves only as atmospheric background in the feature; rather than a consolidation of Lucas and Bresnan’s previous work, “Pahokee” is better viewed as part of a growing rural mosaic.
In any event, Pahokee High School, with its busy fall-to-spring calendar of sporting and social gatherings, forms the film’s nexus, binding the otherwise diverging paths of cheerleader and aspiring nurse Na’Kerria Nelson, Mexican immigrant honor student Jocabed Martinez, football captain and scholarship hopeful BJ Crawford and marching band drum major Junior Walker, who must precariously balance his education with single fatherhood. All except Junior — whose narrative, in many ways the most poignant of the four, is perhaps the least clearly defined — are pursuing college options far from their poverty-stricken hometown. That’s not to say they’re ashamed of their roots. Communal pride and school spirit are practically the lifeblood of Pahokee, particularly as the school’s scrappy but talented football team progresses ever further through the state championships: a simultaneously ecstatic and heartrending arc, culminating in a tough twist, that could fill a documentary on its own.
The football matches are the film’s centerpieces, kinetically filmed as brash explosions of movement both on and off the pitch. (The fast, feverish routines performed by Na’Kerria’s cheer squad look no less exhilarating and exhausting than the game itself.) Acting as their own agile cameramen, the filmmakers capture the pulse of a community in such sequences. In stark contrast, the quieter domestic footage that dominates Jocabed’s story — patiently chronicling the ins and outs of daily life at her parents’ roadside taqueria — position her as something of an outlier in her community. She’s less preoccupied with doing Pahokee proud than she is with honoring her parents, who abandoned all they knew in Mexico to secure a better life for their children; the film’s championing of immigrant rights amid President Trump’s hostile environment is tacit, but clear as day.
When Lucas and Bresnan drift from their central quartet, however, the focus of this pleasingly unnarrated film blurs a little. In particular, an anxious depiction of a daytime shooting in a local park is presented with little context, and little subsequent sense of its impact on the community at large, or “Pahokee’s” selected representatives thereof. It’s a jarring lapse in an otherwise cohesively edited portrait — though it does point to the multitude of narratives lurking in this seemingly tiny Everglades backwater. Perhaps the filmmakers still have more to tell.