(2020) Documentary (Abramorama) Steve Bullock, Cynthia Jackson, James B. Hunt Jr., Ralph Northam, Phil Bryant, Kay Ivey, Aaliyah Samuel, Jeana Ross, Kathrine B. Stevens, Misty Blackmon, Pamela Northam, Diana Mendley Rauner, Todd Klunk, Archie Jones, Jeff Coleman, Diane Schanzenbach, Rebecca Berlin, Rachel Wagner, Amy Dunn, Sunny McPhillips. Directed by Willa Kammerer
A documentary often exists to present a specific point of view. If you asked Michael Moore why he doesn’t present the conservative response to his films, he would probably say “that’s not my job” (only much less politely, I think). Some documentaries, though, need to present more than one viewpoint in order to be effective.
Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America isn’t really a movie: it’s a PowerPoint presentation. It’s an avalanche of talking heads that drown you with information and sound bites until it starts leaking out of your ears and nose. Kammerer’s heart is in the right place, certainly; more attention needs to be paid to early childhood education, particularly for those families less able to afford quality child care. The Saul Zaentz foundation, established by the late Hollywood producer and jazz label founder, has undertaken that as a mission.
I think there was some confusion in regards to mission; the film opens with a graphic stating that the film is apolitical, not subscribing to a particular political party nor any specific state’s method of doing things, then spends more than half the film’s brief run time taking a deep dive into the success of the program in Alabama. That’s right, Alabama; not a state most people would associate with good education has the best record for early childhood education in the United States. I admit to being floored by that.
The talking heads – made up of state governors and former governors, other politicians, educators, academics, researchers and business leaders – stress the economic benefit of early childhood education. Getting kids started on socialization skills and learning how to learn from a very young age will help our kids do better in school and eventually, allow them to get better, more demanding jobs and contribute economically to the betterment of our society. In a way, it was chilling; are we interested in turning out intelligent citizens able to think for themselves, or automatons who are slaves to the wheel, as the saying goes. Given how certain politicians couldn’t wait to get people back to work during a pandemic, it would be forgivable if you assumed the latter.
Not to say that this isn’t a slick piece of work; there are plenty of charts and graphs accompanying the talking heads, interspersed with laughing, playing children in day care centers being taught how to play and problem solve. However, we don’t get a ton of specifics as to how, only that it must be done. We do hear some information about brain development but it gets lost in the noise of the constant barrage of people declaring how this is the Most Important Thing In the Country.
And I get it – this is a very important subject. Educating our children and preparing them for adulthood is one of the main functions of any society. However, there are documentaries that cover this subject that are much more effective. I suspect this was meant for showing to politicians at education conferences, or educators and academics at similar conferences. For general viewers, this is a hard slog to get to an important point. It’s pretty in the sense of the graphics and the happy, smiling kids but at the end of the day, unless you have a small child or are planning to have one, there may be very little interest in the subject for you and the movie won’t generate any – but it should.
REASONS TO SEE: An important subject we should all be invested in.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much a movie as a PowerPoint presentation.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alabama is one of the only states in the union to have a dedicated cabinet member for early childhood education.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Small Matter
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Again Once Again