Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
"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.
The movie eventually zeroes in the school's founder and main teacher, Alex, and two strong-willed kids: a blank-faced, long-haired boy named Jiovanni, and a sunny-dispositioned blonde girl named Lucy. Lucy likes roughhousing and goofing as much as any of the kids, but also likes to have rules in place, so that you know how far to go, and can ask somebody to back you up when you've decided enough is enough. Jiovanni is a spoiled, argumentative, often destructive brat with no regard for anyone's happiness but his own. As such, he's in the perfect (or worst possible) environment.
This school seems at partly founded around the idea that people have an innate need for rules, laws, structure and so forth, and will eventually act in their best interests when a threat like Jiovanni emerges. Is this true, though? Jiovanni's thuggish behavior keeps making it impossible for the other kids to learn or the teachers to teach, and they seem to take forever to unite against him, maybe because nobody wants to be the "bad guy" and puncture Utopia. Like most narcissists, Jiovanni doesn't care if people hate him as long as they can't ignore him. In time, the other children go from being cowed by Jiovanni to vocally despising him. "I'm getting the feeling that everybody else in the school doesn't want to be driven by Jio's likes," says another boy.
I wouldn't go so far as to say Wilder is "just observing" this conflict. I don't think there is any such thing as objectivity where filmmaking is concerned. The footage was collected one or two days each week over a one-year timespan, then shaped during editing to create a semblance of a narrative that builds to a surprisingly traditional (and exciting) climax.
But it does seem fair to say that "Approaching the Elephant" isn't directing us toward any specific conclusion about what's right and wrong. If anything, it's arranging the footage in a way that will challenge or confirm the viewer's preconceived notions about a good education. ("Is this really working?" Alex asks at one point. "We probably won't know for 20 years.")
The final act, during which the school is essentially held hostage to Jiovanni's snotty whims, made me furious. I don't believe in corporal punishment, but boys like him test that commitment. And even though I think the modern American school system is a quasi-fascistic holdover from an earlier time—designed mainly to teach kids how to be obedient, voiceless cogs in an industrial economy that no longer exists—parts of "Approaching the Elephant" made me wonder if free schools aren't an equally misguided over-correction.
Reactions like mine are, I suspect, the whole point of making this particular film in this particular way. The movie is significant as a movie: it's intelligent, sensitive and expertly made. But it's also significant because of its ability to provoke introspection and arguments. In its deceptively modest way, it's as much a Rorschach test as "American Sniper." Everybody who sees it will draw a different picture of the elephant.