“No Small Matter” opens on an innovative attention-grabber, spoofing dry, outdated classroom tutorials to make its point: that a child’s early education is fundamental to their maturation into successful community members and American citizens. However, before the sequence finishes and the facts start flowing, it makes the mistake of laying down a whopping guarantee that the documentary will change how audiences think about its subject. It doesn’t, primarily because the target audience — anyone compelled to watch a documentary about early childhood education in the first place — in all likelihood already embraces this foundational philosophy. While it falls short of its promised earth-shattering, mind-altering revelations, it does cast an interesting hook from a creative perspective, thoughtfully packaging its message in visually coherent, engaging ways.
Directors Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel are fairly astute at visually contextualizing their reams of data. They’ve seemingly thought of everything to make their cinematic call to arms aesthetically absorbing, right down to their locales, strengthening subtle thematic connections. Stereotypical, straightforward interviews with academic experts and professionals are set in classrooms, living rooms and boardrooms — locations that impact childhood development the most.
The three co-directors harness further visual interest through the use of computer graphics that play during some of the discussions and revelations. The facts, figures and statistics are divulged in an array of charts and lists featuring distinct designs. A child’s brain function is presented as a complex string of backyard light bulbs clinking together, firing on or off. Animated simulations, including cave paintings that come to life and a cartoon baby who thwarts danger by self-soothing, illustrate how children process toxicity. That said, some of the metaphorical connotations are a bit on the nose. When an expert explains a baby’s brain function by speaking like an air traffic controller, it’s married with footage of runways and control towers.
Executive producer Alfre Woodard also participates as narrator, making the project that much more accessible as her warm, dulcet tone of voice is convincing without an air of pushiness. Paul Brill’s score is thankfully non-obtrusive, only pressed upon to deliver maximum drama when absolutely necessary. Sound design is also key during the segment where therapists describe how negative environments distress a child’s delicate system. Instead of being confronted with exploitative footage, audiences hear muffled, swirling sounds of adults yelling, sirens blaring and other terrors that tiny tots encounter.
The documentarians’ fly-on-the-wall camera style complements the approach, showing families making sacrifices to better their kids’ lives, threading sympathy into the film’s fabric. They show what it’s like for families who send their kids to daycare, and those who can’t — both decisions driven by financial circumstances. The film excels at spotlighting the growing problem of qualifying for quality daycare and schooling within marginalized communities, a plight not exclusively relegated to the impoverished. One interviewee appears to be stuck in the dead zone of middle class, too rich to get a boost but too poor to improve their own situation. These portions move snappily, whether cut together in a montage or explored in greater depth.
While the stylistic, factual and emotional substance is there, the net result is tilted more toward educating rather than entertaining. Overarching thematic content remains at surface level. There’s little that goes understated, especially in the classroom observation portions where the camera takes a passive role capturing preschoolers in their natural habitat. The filmmakers don’t seem to trust their audience to comprehend what’s being shown, so additional narration is layered on top to tell us about the science behind the behavior.
The overall tonal balance can also be a bit wobbly. A jostling shift occurs after Cookie Monster’s levity-fueled, star-powered cameo as the movie launches viewers into a sobering segment involving the sad reality some kids face. Coming off a delightfully fantastical high, where Sesame Street’s beloved sugar fiend karaoke sings “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” pivoting into depressing circumstances isn’t as tactful a turn as one would hope to stoke our empathy.
There’s little building, pressing momentum. Though the documentary alludes to bigger-picture challenges, it doesn’t attempt to deconstruct these bigger societal failures, nor does it investigate when and where such a breakdown may have occurred. Rather, it starts from the position that such precursors have game-changing consequences. It’s also a little unclear if this is a primarily American problem. If so, including insights from how other countries handle the issue might have helped to bolster its plea.
Within its short run time, the film’s arguments feel compacted rather than potent. The ending presents a title card touting that politicians of all parties support affordable, quality early education programs. Yet it cuts off before answering the biggest question: If the government wants to confront this crisis, why isn’t reform taking place? The documentary ends where that story begins — and that’s no small matter.