A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
"Approaching the Elephant" is a documentary about a year in the life of Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, New Jersey, an institution without a curriculum or even set rules. It takes its title from a quote from J.D. Salinger's "Teddy," by way of the old anecdote about the group of blind men feeling an elephant and drawing wrong conclusions based on partial information.
There's a danger of doing exactly that when writing about this peculiar and special nonfiction film. As directed and shot (mostly solo) by first-time feature filmmaker Amanda Rose Wilder, and as edited by Robert Greene ("Actress"), it's a truly old-school documentary, constructed in the manner of a 1960s "direct cinema" or "fly on the wall" feature. It tells its story without music, narration, graphs, or expert witnesses. It's committed to letting you decide what, if anything, it's trying to say, by putting you in the middle of a place, and letting you watch what happens.
That "if anything" is in the preceding sentence for a reason. After watching Wilder's movie a couple of times, I'm convinced that it might not be making any single, statement about free schools. More likely, it's trying to spark arguments about the core issues in education: the need for discipline and lesson plans and set subjects; the question of whether an authoritarian model of leadership is preferable or if you should let children (even very young ones) have a voice.
The first part of the film suffers from a certain aimlessness. It seems a bit coy about deciding who its main characters are. We don't necessarily need to have a conclusion foreshadowed for us. But early on, it's not easy to figure out why we're watching this black-and-white, handheld movie about a school that accepts kids who don't fit into more traditional institutions due to learning problems or discipline issues—a hippie-ish place where anybody, adult or child, can call a meeting and discuss this or that, and students don't have to study a subject if they don't feel like it.