For Ahkeem


Attitude is everything.

(2017) Documentary (Transient) Daje Shelton, Antonio, Judge Jimmie Edwards, Tammy Shelton. Directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest

There are those who criticize the Black Lives Matter movement by saying that All Lives Matter, not just black ones. Of course they do. The issue is that sometimes white America, particularly the institutions of law enforcement and education treat the African-American community with such contempt that reminders are necessary.

This documentary follows young African-American teen Daje “Boonie” Shelton. She’s a typical young girl in North St. Louis; she has friends she hangs out with, she likes boys and as far as school goes, meh! But Daje has some anger issues; she gets into fights at school and now she’s being expelled. She stands in front of Judge Jimmie Edwards, her mother Tammy at her side and Judge Edwards essentially tells the two of them that despite mom’s pleas for one more chance, Daje has run out of them. She has one option and one option only: to enroll in the alternative school that he helped found, the Innovative Concept Academy (ICA) which specializes in helping at-risk youths transition from the criminal justice system into the education system and break the endless cycle of jail, release, jail, release that besets so many African-American teens.

Daje is extremely reluctant to go but her mom and Judge Edwards impress upon her that her only other choice is to drop out and find a job and this Tammy is adamant that Daje avoid. Daje is a bright girl who has a shot at going to college and Tammy is encouraging her to go. Little by little, Daje begins to blossom at ICA and become more self-confident and even as she struggles with math, she has a good chance at graduating and getting into college. With the help of counselors and teachers who believe in her, Daje learns to shine.

She also meets a boy named Antonio and from the moment they lock eyes they’re joined at the hip. Antonio has even more difficulty handling school than Daje and eventually drops out. Shortly thereafter Daje discovers she’s pregnant. The odds just got a little tougher but she perseveres, taking care of her pregnancy as well as school. Once she gives birth, she’s all about her baby boy Ahkeem. Everything she does is for him.

The baby daddy though is making a lot of bad decisions that put him in jail and on probation for a variety of crimes. Even though he professes when Ahkeem is born that he will get  a job and support his son so that he has the opportunities he himself didn’t have, he fails to follow through and instead gets arrested for being involved with a stolen vehicle and then caught with enough marijuana while on probation for the first crime to get arrested again.

Daje has a whole lot of attitude and not very much in the way of accountability when the documentary begins. The problems she has, according to Daje, are not her fault and yet Daje makes a lot of very poor decisions. The a-ha moment for me though was when I considered raising my own son at her age; he was also prone to making some pretty poor decisions. Unlike Daje and Antonio, he had far more opportunities to get his act together. He didn’t have the police breathing down his neck treating him like a criminal just for ambling around the neighborhood. When you treat someone like a criminal, they are far more likely to become one.

The filmmakers remain unobtrusive (although I’m sure that they made quite a stir at ICA) and nonjudgmental throughout. They present Daje’s life as it happens. They had no way of knowing that she would get pregnant (although statistics say that the potential was relatively high) and no way of knowing that she would graduate (which statistics said was far less likely). What happens to Daje happens to a lot of African-American women – her mother relates a very similar story which is why she is so adamant that Daje go to college. The filmmakers simply document and that is the essence of a documentary. My hat is off to them.

Daje in many ways is the face of African-American teen girls. She faces the same challenges, has the same hopes and dreams and survives the same environment. Despite the presence of Barack Obama in the White House when this was filmed, she knew very well that she was part of a system that was broken and yet there wasn’t much will in the corridors of power to do anything to fix that system. Now, with a new President and control of the legislature and the Supreme Court in the hands of men who seem to have little or no incentive to fix things in the African-American community, the outlook is even bleaker.

Leaving the screening for this film, I found myself wondering what sort of chance Ahkeem has at all. It took some time and reflection to consider that the problem isn’t just Ahkeem’s parents; it’s the environment that he lives in. During the course of filming, a young man named Michael J. Brown was shot in nearby Ferguson, sparking nationwide protests and giving rise to Black Lives Matter. Daje has a notebook which is littered with “R.I.P.” notices for fallen friends, most victims of gang and drug violence and she herself carries the scar of a bullet wound. The life expectancy of a young African-American man is not very long and the opportunities for escaping the cycle of poverty and crime not very many. For those opportunities to arise, white America will need to learn to perceive African-Americans differently. Documentaries like this one will help in doing that.

REASONS TO GO: A true slice of life of the issues African-American teens are facing today. Filmmakers take a nonjudgmental approach and are unobtrusive throughout. We get to watch Daje grow and blossom over the course of the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the choices Daje and Antonio make will frustrate you. May be uncomfortably grim for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers, both white, followed Daje around for her Junior and Senior years of high school.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Girl Flu

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Cents


Girls can be great at math too.

Girls can be great at math too.

(2016) Drama (Cents LLC) Julia Flores, Lillie Kolich, Jy Prishkulnik, Claire Mackenzie Carter, Monique Candelaria, Esodie Geigner, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, William R. Stafford, Kate Chavez, Lindsy Campbell, Laurel Harris, Catherine Haun, Kristin Hansen, Zechariah Baca, Vivian Nesbitt (voice), Melissa Hipple, Paige Kelly, Katy Burke, Kelley Lewallen, Lauren Myers. Directed by Christopher Boone

 

It’s a little known secret but there is the beginning of a scene in New Mexico going on. Talented filmmakers have begun to produce some interesting and challenging films in the area and it might just be that the Land of Enchantment might just be the next hot filmmaking mecca.

Sammy Baca (Flores) is an only child, being raised by her mother Angela (Candelaria) who got pregnant at 15 and has been Sammy’s sole parent all along, Angela’s boyfriend having sent her packing the moment responsibility reared its ugly head. Angela works as a nurse practitioner but wants to take the next step up and go to medical school to become a doctor. It has been a challenge for her; Angela has received rejection after rejection which has given her ego a pounding. Sammy wonders why Angela is even bothering; nobody believes in her, not even Sammy.

Sammy herself is unpopular. She’s got some serious talent with math, able to solve complex problems in her head at only 12 years old and has gotten tutoring in advance calculus from Ms. Dyer (Geigner), a math teacher who has taken an interest in Sammy. Sammy is regularly getting in trouble with the principal (Martinez-Cunningham), the latest episode being illegally selling gum at school (I didn’t even know that was a thing).

There happens to be a penny drive going on at school under the aegis of school Queen Bee Hannah Evers (Prishkulnik) who rules the roost with an iron fist, using social media as a way to keep those beneath her (which is everyone) in line. Hannah’s coterie is also involved, including Katie Schmidt (Kolich) who was Sammy’s best friend until the fourth grade, and Emily Foster (Carter) who is a bit of a toady with ambition.

Sammy hits upon an idea to make more money for the penny drive. Basically it involves having people pledging to give one penny each day, but the hook is that they also then must bring in another person the next day to pledge a penny the remaining days, then each of them bring another person the next day and so on and so on. It’s a pyramid scheme, yes, even though the drive is for a good cause, but a pyramid scheme nonetheless that will collapse of its own weight eventually. Still, it’s making more money than the drive had previously which makes Hannah absolutely insane with jealousy…and Sammy has plenty of secrets that can be used to hurt her.

I will have to admit that this is one of the most authentic movies I’ve seen regarding pre-teen and tween girls, as well as about their relationship with one another and with their moms. A lot of times we see kind of a sanitized version of girls this age as essentially brave little princesses who save the day with smarts and Girl Power! Their moms are wise and adoring and nobody ever makes any mistakes.

All the characters here make some fairly big ones; Sammy herself has a moral compass that doesn’t always point true north. She doesn’t always do things for the right reasons and she has something of a chip on her shoulder. She says some genuinely hateful things to her mom – just like adolescent daughters sometimes do. That doesn’t make Sammy a terrible person; it just makes her a person.

This is definitely a femme-centric movie; guys who prefer car chases and explosions will probably find little of value here for them, although they might just get educated about how 12-year-old girls think and act which might come in handy if they ever, you know, have a daughter or a sister. I think a lot of women will find this familiar territory in a good way; they will find themselves relating to a girl who is outcast because she is capable, and they’ll also relate to the Queen Bee situation at school, particularly younger women who have been through schools in the age of social media.

With adolescent girls comes adolescent drama and there is an awful lot of door slamming and temper tantrums (some thrown by adults) here. Those with a low tolerance for that kind of thing may well find this unpalatable, but in general, this is a very solidly made movie that doesn’t really shake the foundations of filmmaking but simply tells a story well, and makes it relatable and realistic – even better. Those are some talents that even some longtime pros don’t have. All in all this is an impressive feature by a filmmaker with a great deal of potential from an emerging filmmaking center. It’s the kind of work that long careers are built on.

REASONS TO GO: The portrayal of middle school girls and their relationships is quite authentic. The film is surprisingly charming.
REASONS TO STAY: As is true with most adolescents, there is a great deal of temper tantrums and door slamming. Sammy to begin with isn’t the easiest person to like.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nothing here that would be unacceptable for middle school kids or their parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The school scenes were filmed at Desert Ridge Middle School in Albuquerque.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VMX, VOD (check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Will Hunting
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Anatomy of Monsters