Margaret Byrne turns in an impressive directorial debut with "Raising Bertie." The documentary spends six years with three young black men living in rural Bertie County, North Carolina, focusing on a population that so rarely gets the spotlight.
The film alternates between triumph and tragedy, but there's never a moment that doesn't feel intimate and authentic in its 96-minute running time.
After struggling in traditional schools, Reginald "Junior" Askew, David "Bud" Perry and Davonte "Dada" Harrell are developing at the Hive, an alternative school in the area. Bertie County is 80% black with 27 prisons within a 100-mile radius. The specter of prison hangs over these young men's lives. The Hive offers a different option, but when the program loses funding, Junior, Bud and Dada have to see if they can continue elsewhere what they started learning there.
"Raising Bertie" is lyrical at times and entirely earthbound in others, featuring cinematography of the region that shows its natural beauty as well as the dangers of living in the community. Byrne's vérité approach never judges her subjects; there's no voice-over commentary, but it's hard not to root for these three men to find success against the odds.
"Raising Bertie" never makes an explicit argument for education, economic or justice reform, though it's difficult to watch without questioning how Junior, Bud and Dada's lives might be different if more opportunities were in reach.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills