Review: Documentary ‘Pahokee’ finds heart and hope in a small Florida town
Nestled along the shores of Lake Okeechobee, among sugar cane fields and gator-filled canals, the rural farming town of Pahokee, Fla., could have been the backdrop of a very different story than the one told in “Pahokee.” Pegged for years as “the worst town in Florida,” hardships galore lurk beneath these periwinkle skies and Everglades sunsets, where a water tower looms overhead, reminding its residents exactly where they are.
But in Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan’s feature documentary, another narrative emerges: one of hopefulness and pride among the 6,000 strong who call Pahokee home, carried in the clear eyes and full hearts of four high school seniors as they chart their paths toward graduation and beyond.
With a patient and unobtrusive eye, filmmakers Lucas and Bresnan paint impressionistic portraits of a quartet of charismatic teenagers over the course of a pivotal school year.
There’s gregarious cheerleader Na’Kerria, whose unsinkable smile begins to waver after she loses the homecoming crown she had her heart set on; BJ, a co-captain of the football team angling for an athletic scholarship; Junior, the drum major of the marching band and a single father caring for his year-old daughter; and Jocabed, an honors student and child of Mexican immigrants who spends her free time helping out at the family’s taco shop.
These heroes and heroines are high school archetypes, with a twist: They’re from a working class, predominantly African American and Latino community burdened by economic devastation but buoyed by a communal spirit around the high school. Its students, American teens seldom seen winning football games, navigating prom and anguishing over college prospects in movies, step into the spotlight.
“Pahokee” is the feature-length culmination of documentary work by the filmmakers in recent years in Pahokee. Their intimate spotlights on the everyday lives and rituals of its townsfolk and young people are also the focus of 2018’s “Skip Day,” which won best short film at the Cannes Directors Fortnight program that year. (As local lore has it, young NFL hopefuls in the football-crazy town are made speedier by hunting rabbits on foot across the burning sugar cane fields; Lucas and Bresnan made a short about that too.)
But they tend to give their subjects a little too much room, failing to connect the dots between chasms of time. In one instance of the filmmakers being at the right place at the right moment, a shocking burst of violence that upends an otherwise joyful day at the park for the whole community feels glossed over. If there are more complex day-to-day anxieties to blame for the shadows that flit across their teen subjects’ faces as the camera deftly finds them in a crowd, they’re only hinted at in whatever self-analysis the kids occasionally volunteer and record themselves in confessional selfie videos.
Their hopes and dreams are writ large — college, success, survival — but the emotional realities of these kids, each facing his or her own challenge and financial uncertainty on the cusp of adulthood, remain frustratingly opaque. Still, Lucas and Bresnan keenly see how even the ups have downs and vice versa. One can’t help but cheer for every victory, ache for every setback and hurdle, and root for these high-schoolers to thrive wherever life takes them. Nimble editing intercuts glimpses of Pahokee’s fields, farms and streets, of the natural beauty and rhythms that open and close each day. A bigger picture comes into view like a pointillist landscape, inviting the outside world in to hope, dream and strive along with them.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Available April 24 via Laemmle’s Virtual Cinema
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