Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Zack Snyder Defends 'Man Of Steel' Finale, Ben Affleck Reveals Bruce Wayne Knew People Who Died In That Battle Zack Snyder Defends 'Man Of Steel' Finale, Ben Affleck Reveals Bruce Wayne Knew People Who Died In That Battle New Book Contends Eric Stoltz Was “Difficult” & The Cast Wasn’t Shocked He Was Replaced On ‘Back To The Future’ New Book Contends Eric Stoltz Was “Difficult” & The Cast Wasn’t Shocked He Was Replaced On ‘Back To The Future’ Watch: Scott Lang Wants To Call The Avengers In New International 'Ant-Man' Trailer Watch: Scott Lang Wants To Call The Avengers In New International 'Ant-Man' Trailer The 20 Worst Films Of 2015 So Far The 20 Worst Films Of 2015 So Far Zack Snyder Reveals The Easter Egg Idea He Pitched Christopher Nolan And David Goyer For 'Man Of Steel' Zack Snyder Reveals The Easter Egg Idea He Pitched Christopher Nolan And David Goyer For 'Man Of Steel' New Images Of Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor, More In 'Batman v. Superman,' Ben Affleck Compares Batman To Hamlet New Images Of Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor, More In 'Batman v. Superman,' Ben Affleck Compares Batman To Hamlet Paul Thomas Anderson To Write And Possibly Direct Warner Bros' ‘Pinocchio’ For Robert Downey Jr. Paul Thomas Anderson To Write And Possibly Direct Warner Bros' ‘Pinocchio’ For Robert Downey Jr. Watch: First Trailer For Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley & Nicolas Cage Watch: First Trailer For Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley & Nicolas Cage Review: ‘Terminator: Genisys’ Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney & Jason Clarke Review: ‘Terminator: Genisys’ Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney & Jason Clarke 'Thor: The Dark World' Director Alan Taylor Says His Marvel Experience Was "Particularly Wrenching" 'Thor: The Dark World' Director Alan Taylor Says His Marvel Experience Was "Particularly Wrenching" Watch: Anna Paquin Is Rescued In Clip From 'X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue Cut' Watch: Anna Paquin Is Rescued In Clip From 'X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue Cut' Kevin Feige Says 'Spider-Man 2' Is "One Of The Best Superhero Movies Ever," Talks John Hughes Influence On New Spidey Kevin Feige Says 'Spider-Man 2' Is "One Of The Best Superhero Movies Ever," Talks John Hughes Influence On New Spidey Watch: Live Your Ultimate Fantasy With The First NSFW Trailer For Gaspar Noe's 'Love' Watch: Live Your Ultimate Fantasy With The First NSFW Trailer For Gaspar Noe's 'Love' Review & Recap: ‘True Detective’ Season 2, Episode 2, ‘Night Finds You’ Review & Recap: ‘True Detective’ Season 2, Episode 2, ‘Night Finds You’ The Punisher Will Reportedly Appear As The Villain In ‘Daredevil’ Season 2 The Punisher Will Reportedly Appear As The Villain In ‘Daredevil’ Season 2 The 25 Best TV Shows Of The 2014/2015 Season The 25 Best TV Shows Of The 2014/2015 Season The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season

NYFF Review: Documentary 'American Promise' A Flawed, Yet Fascinating Look At Coming Of Age

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist October 5, 2013 at 3:29PM

Raising a child seems to be both an act of love and faith. You provide the absolute best you can for them, and then hope and trust that you've put them on a path that will lead to the kind of rich and fulfilling life you want them to have. But even in a situation where seemingly nothing is left to chance, and only the finest opportunities are afforded, so much is decided by chance and fate. And the expectations that parents place in their children, and the dreams that children envision for themselves, can often diverge. Watching your child grow, is a continual act of acceptance and renewal of love of who that child has become. And all of this is observed in Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson's "American Promise," in which the filmmakers take a page from "Hoop Dreams," turning the camera on their own son Idris and his best friend Seun, and tracking their education and lives from grade school through graduation.
0
American Promise

Raising a child seems to be both an act of love and faith. You provide the absolute best you can for them, and then hope and trust that you've put them on a path that will lead to the kind of rich and fulfilling life you want them to have. But even in a situation where seemingly nothing is left to chance, and only the finest opportunities are afforded, so much is decided by chance and fate. And the expectations that parents place in their children, and the dreams that children envision for themselves, can often diverge. Watching your child grow is a continual act of acceptance and renewal of love of who that child has become. And all of this is observed in Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson's "American Promise," in which the filmmakers take a page from "Hoop Dreams," turning the camera on their own son Idris and his best friend Seun, and tracking their education and lives from grade school through graduation.

The Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is viewed by both sets of parents as the ideal starting point for their children. While it may not offer the racial diversity of their own community, or the kind of mix you might find in a good public school, Dalton has the pedigree, educators and program that can take both Idris and Seun far. It's the kind of school, as we witness in the film, where kids can put down their thoughts and feelings about 9/11 and it gets read by someone at the U.N. This is a school with connections to the kind of world that Idris and Seun's parents could never have dreamed of. And for Dalton, well aware that their student body could stand to use more color, welcome these additions, though point out that these kids aren't in the school because they are tokens; it's still academics and potential that allow Idris and Seun in their hallowed halls. But the best intentions have very different results for these two young children.

The sensitive Idris, who can be easily reduced to tears, mostly shines at Dalton, a bright kid who can be inattentive and unfocused at times. But he finds his place in the structure there, though his proper English leaves him somewhat alienated from the children on his own block back home. As for Seun, he less easily integrates into the system and struggles academically, even if socially, his ability to hang with any clique never leaves him wanting for company. And then the film takes an interesting turn when its subjects diverge for high school, with Idris staying on at Dalton, and Seun moving to the mostly black public school, Benjamin Banneker Academy. "American Promise" rightfully never attempts to make any sweeping statements about which is a better environment for a child, because the filmmakers—likely learning as they shoot the documentary, and raise their children—have learned throughout the various twists and turns that all the preparation in the world can never make you fully ready for what's to come.

But this is where questions arise when it comes to "American Promise." The crucial distinction between this documentary and similarly formed efforts, is that the filmmakers are invested in the subjects deeply, and are subjects of the movie themselves. To be fair, Joe and Michèle never let themselves off the hook, and both have more than once scene that would embarrass any parent who has acted similarly, or had misgivings about their own offspring. (Michèle's tearful confession that she wishes Idris had the same self-starter motivation she did at his age is particularly bracing, while Joe tends to take the path that less sympathy will build a stronger person.) But because there is no completely objective third party, one wonders how much complete truth is actually up on screen. Are we seeing an unabridged reality, or reality the Stephensons want us to see of their lives? Certainly, with editorial control over 800 hours of footage, they are putting together the narrative they want to tell, driving home the issues of race and class they want to address. And directors of previous films, and highly educated with Joe a Harvard and Stanford-trained psychiatrist and Michèle a Columbia law school grad, they must've certainly thought about this themselves.

However, the palpable honesty of "American Promise" mostly erodes those nagging thoughts, even if there are legitimate questions to be raised about point of view in this effort. But those aside, the documentary is often fascinating, even as it eschews any kind of traditional narrative. Running leisurely over two hours long, it's nonetheless compelling as a unique survey of growing up, not just as an African-American—though those concerns are very present—but as a young man in general. Death and illness make profound appearances in the lives both Idris and Seun, another pair of unpredictable factors that can substantially alter how one embraces or perceives life, and the chances that are there for the taking.

As the film comes to a close, it's Joe who takes it hardest when his own son falls short of the goals he had for him. Idris perhaps won't be a president or a senator or a doctor, and it's reconciling that disconnect between who he might be and who he is that's difficult for his father. It's affecting to see Joe apologize to his son for his harsh words driven by an unrealistic image of who Idris is, and candidly tell him that he'll be behind him in whatever life choice he makes (though again, since Joe is the filmmaker too, that lingering question about in-the-moment sincerity hangs over it). And what this documentary perhaps concludes is that the "American Promise" lies not in the endless opportunities the country offers, but in the pact parents make with their children, to support them in whatever opportunity they happen to seize. [B]


This article is related to: New York Film Festival , Reviews, Review, Documentary


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates