Doesn't do its subject matter justice, burying an important message in cluttered storytelling.
If You Build It
In 2010 Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller, two architect-activists living in the Bay Area (who upon meeting developed a fast attraction to one another) migrated cross-country to the dilapidated rural town of Windsor in Bertie, the poorest county in North Carolina. Their goal was to jumpstart Windsor’s floundering economy and, more importantly, instill a sense of hometown pride in the community, particularly in the town’s youth, who after high school traditionally catch the first train out of Windsor and never look back.
Emily and Matt introduced an unorthodox shop class at the local high school they called Studio H. If You Build It follows their first school year as instructors, bonding with their students as they teach them the fundamentals of humanitarian design, while working toward constructing a farmer’s market pavilion for the city by the end of the school year. The school board, unreceptive to the nontraditional program, cut funding, forcing Emily and Matt to give up their salaries to save Studio H.
The film is most engaging when we see the positive effects Studio H has on the students. It’s gratifying to watch them work together diligently on class projects, designing and erecting cornhole sets and angular chicken coops, and then seeing the sense of accomplishment in their eyes as they admire their creations. One student expresses indifference toward school at the film’s outset, saying he’d rather not go at all, but by the end of the school year he’s completely engaged in the classroom experience, a testament to the power of Studio H.
It’s clear from the footage that Emily and Matt developed a tight relationship with their students atypical of most classroom environments. When one girl tells Matt she has no way of getting to and from the worksite for the farmer’s market, he builds her a bike, a compassionate gesture that simultaneously teaches her the value of resourcefulness. They get their hands dirty with their students both literally and emotionally, as they aren’t averse to expressing their own frustration or confusion to the kids.
Though full of adoration for his subjects, director Pat Creadon tells their stories in a cluttered, unrefined way which unfortunately makes the events feel less significant than they actually are. For example, Emily and Matt’s decision to forgo salaries is an extraordinary sacrifice, but we never get a sense of its true gravity. This is because the film’s focus is spread too thin. It’s a film about classroom dynamics, backcountry lifestyle, strained romance, a stubborn school system, a beleaguered community, and the virtues of design all at once. Creadon darts between these different narratives almost arbitrarily, and doesn’t explore any of them thoroughly. In one scene, we see Emily weeping in her car, and its suggested that she’s been the victim of discrimination due to her half Japanese, Californian background. The issue is never touched upon again. Why bring it up? Creadon teases us with moments like this, sending our minds down roads that lead to dead ends.
What’s most frustrating about the film is that Creadon seems to be walking around the classroom, simply pointing the camera at the students and teachers and asking them what they’re doing and how they feel about it. Sometimes, they’re clearly focused on the task at hand and have little interest in talking to the camera, and one wonders why Creadon didn’t take a more observational cinematic approach. At one point, he sets up a sort of makeshift confessional in a small storage closet and brings the kids in one by one, asking them what the class has meant to them. It’s incredibly awkward and unnatural.
If You Build It aspires to be a challenge to the traditional public school system, something that requires richer analysis than Creadon provides. Why don’t we get interviews with the school board members? It’s hard to comprehend the full weight Emily and Matt’s amazing work since we never get a full grasp on the mindset of the people who so vehemently opposed their program. It’s a limited viewpoint of a much larger, high-stakes issue.