AFI DOCS Film Festival – Part 2

Try Harder
These movies like TRY HARDER! about teens waiting on college admission decisions stress me out to no end. When I got into college, I waited for an envelope stuffed with confetti that exploded all over my living room. Nowadays, they wait by their phones or laptops refreshing a webpage to see what their future holds.  A nightmare.  For the students at the prestigious Lowell High, the pressure is on to live up to a reputation of being the best of the best and realizing you’re just one of many swimming upstream in a narrow pond. Director Debbie Lum follows a handful of overachieving (could you even call it that?  It just looks like they are really invested in getting into college…) juniors and seniors planning for the future and a few of their parents as well. Lum surprisingly gets in deep quickly with the students and teachers — an early exit for one key player caught me so off guard as to choke me up more than I could have imagined. By the end, you’ll be holding your breath along with each one as they find out their fate, sharing in their victory and their loss…and also wondering what you could have done with just one more AP course on your transcript.

In the age of reality television, Instagram, Tik-Tok, etc. where people are acutely aware of cameras, it can be difficult to truly get that cinema verité style of filmmaking that makes certain documentaries have such a palpable realism.  So, it’s no small miracle that directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill have given us CUSP, an eye-opening look into the lives of a group of girls in a small Texas town over the course of one summer as they all do some growing up.  Featuring the kind of personalities that only exist in narrative features, these young women are bold, mouthy, independent, vulnerable, and don’t edit themselves for the camera. The directors are present for some tough conversations and revelations and with the amount of underage illegal activity going on you can see why there is some controversy surrounding it.  Yet the brilliance of the piece is illustrated by the directors featuring one of the mothers of the girls as a supporting character, almost a grown-up version of themselves…still a bit of a wild child, not quite tamed.  It’s a sign to the teens that growing up doesn’t mean losing that part of themselves that’s strong-willed, it’s just adding in responsibility on top of it all.

North by Current
This was one doc that I missed at the Tribeca Film Festival and heard good things about so was excited to see offered here.  I wish I had come away attached to NORTH BY CURRENT a bit more but director Angelo Madsen Minax’s reflection on his family using the death of his niece as a catalyst never hooked me like I thought it would.  There’s certainly fine filmmaking on display here and ideas at play that will appeal to audiences seeking out non-traditional storytelling methods for their documentaries. I can get on board with that as well, but I never felt like I was understanding what was fully being explored.  Was it the death of his niece? The potential abuse of his sister at the hands of her husband?  The family adjustment to Minax’s life as a trans man?  That last piece is actually where Minax finds the most emotionally resonant moments in his film, two of the most powerful and knock you off your seat rattling statements are made by family members in relation to this and you wish there was more of a dive into that.    

Courtroom 3H
I love a good courtroom drama like anyone else, but we all know that the reality of court is nothing like they show it in the movies. Director Antonio Méndez Esparza’s COURTROOM 3H takes viewers inside a family court in Tallahassee over three months and offers a glimpse at what goes on during difficult proceedings to determine the welfare of children.  This is a simple doc that offers deep rewards over two hours. Initially, it takes some getting used to because the camera set-up is basically point and shoot.  Cases and faces go by at random with little weight put on one over the other and Esparza has wisely chosen to omit any footage that is overly histrionic, opting instead for cases that alternately show success and failure.  Divided into two sections, the first covers short hearings that last several minutes while the second hour is devoted to two lengthy trials.  It’s a truly fascinating bit of insight, if only for a brief moment, and a completely captivating watch.

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