The nonstop drama of the Trump White House has succeeded, among other things, in largely pushing gun control from the forefront of the news cycle — no doubt to the relief of the NRA and its allies, despite the continued frequency of U.S. mass shootings. As a result, and perhaps unfairly, Kim A. Snyder’s “Us Kids” feels a bit like old news, as it focuses on a school massacre and the subsequent activist tide that occurred less than two years ago, yet somehow already feel distant. Nonetheless, this Sundance-premiering documentary offers a potent testimony to the impact of citizen protest — even, or perhaps particularly, when those citizens include youths who themselves just survived a school shooting.
Where Snyder’s 2016 “Newtown” held to the perspective of parents grieving after a gunman killed 26 people (including 20 first-graders) at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary in late 2012, “Kids” charts the very different reaction of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., a little over five years later. When another gunman (this time an alumnus) killed 17 and wounded 17 more on Valentine’s Day 2018, the surviving students likewise suffered trauma. But they also immediately channeled their anger into a strikingly effective, high-profile campaign for improved gun control that had national, even international, impact.
“Us Kids” primarily celebrates that resilient, focused energy from teenagers who proved perhaps surprisingly articulate as well as passionate in thrusting themselves into a politicized spotlight. It’s more interested in their personalities and personal experiences than in the specific political issues wrestled with. Like “Newtown,” this sometimes results in a repetitious directorial expression of empathy, particularly in the realm of inspirational montages set to pop music. Still, the subjects are duly admirable for their poise and intelligence as Snyder’s camera follows them over 18 months, in which they go from being “normal-ass kids doing normal-ass things” to a high-profile movement’s leading spokespeople.
The best known of them, of course, are now-graduated Emma González and David Hogg, who magnetized media coverage as the Stoneman students’ protests spread from local rallies to marches and organizing far afield. That attention also magnetized the ire of gun-rights advocates, some of whom (like the inimitable Alex Jones) suggested they were phonies, “coached” by liberal adult Second Amendment foes.
As a core of Parkland and other youths embark on a summer bus tour to drum up activism nationwide, there is mention of the death threats, conspiracy theories, insults and so forth they’re regularly targeted by. Yet they insist they are pro-Second, advocating improved gun regulation rather than the “We’re taking all your weapons!” scenario of popular far-right paranoia. And to their credit, we frequently see them going out to engage in civil dialogue with counterprotesters, pointing out that the ideological gap between their camps is not so wide as advertised.
As compelling as Hogg and González are (and as touching as their friendship is — they’re each other’s biggest boosters), it might’ve been nice if “Us Kids” had itself strayed farther from the mainstream media narrative in emphasizing less-familiar faces. Considerable screen time is dedicated to Samantha Fuentes, who was hit by bullets but lived while close friend Nick Dworet died next to her. She provides a relatable perspective in being occasionally less-than-composed in the public glare (we see her upchuck at the podium a couple times). Still, there are peers frequently glimpsed in the background who never seem to get a word in, while Snyder keeps the established, semi-reluctant “stars” front and center.
Notably joined by Milwaukee teen Bria Smith, who’d objected to the absence of represented African American youths greatly at risk of gun violence, the mobilizing Road to Change tour did have impact: It contributed to an unprecedented young-voter turnout at subsequent midterm elections that saw a lot of NRA-sponsored candidates lose. (The movement also underlined the effectiveness of publicly shaming politicians who accept gun lobby donations, and the corporations that likewise support those politicians.) Yet here we are many months and mass shootings later, with little real legislative progress made toward curbing an epidemic of gun violence.
As “Us Kids” ends on a note of very cautious optimism, the takeaway seems not so much that protest is ineffectual but that it takes ever more citizen outrage to force any changes in a governmental system mired in special-interest influence and money. Facing adulthood, the Parkland students realize the cause with which they’re associated is just one issue complicating their world’s future.
At times, the documentary seems less committed to facts and action, instead offering chicken-soup-for-the-soul video collages set to somewhat on-the-nose tracks by artists from the Woodstock era’s Thunderclap Newman to this generation’s Billie Eilish. “Newtown” also has a couple too many such overly packaged inspirational interludes. But both documentaries more than compensate with content and protagonists who can hardly help moving us.
If it seems more of a flashback than a flashpoint — particularly as impeachment proceedings seem to crowd out discussion of anything else — “Us Kids” nonetheless reminds that this issue too often comes down to children, and whether our society places enough value on that supposedly most-precious-resource to meaningfully protect them. At this point in the seemingly never-ending debate over America’s gun habit, Snyder needs only provide one eye-blink montage of politicos mouthing the usual empty words to remind that “thoughts and prayers” don’t stop bullets.