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Review: Documentary ‘For Ahkeem’ delivers a bracing story of grit in a world of social injustice

Daje Shelton in the documentary "For Ahkeem."
(Vitagraph Films)

Motherhood proves to have a profoundly life-changing effect on a chronically combative teen in “For Ahkeem,” a tenderly intimate, affecting documentary portrait by filmmakers Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest.

When we’re first introduced to Daje “Boonie” Shelton, she’s presented as a North St. Louis high school senior, whose propensity for getting into fights has landed her in Innovative Concept Academy (ICA), a juvenile court-supervised last chance at a diploma.

Despite the efforts of her committed teachers and the inspirational posters of Barack Obama and Muhammad Ali looking down from classroom walls, Daje seems destined to succumb to her distracted ways — especially those concerning her drug-dealing boyfriend, Antonio, by whom she becomes pregnant.

But the birth of her son, Ahkeem, awakens a spark of resolve and tenacity in Daje, who ultimately refuses to allow herself to be swept through the all too common “school-to-prison pipeline.”

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Co-directors Levine and Van Soest, who shot the filmed diary over a two-year period, achieve an effective, timely balance between cinematographer Nicholas Weissman’s remarkably up-close-and-personal camerawork and a wider sociological context, overlapping chronologically with the police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in neighboring Ferguson.

Although there are times when an exhausted Daje looks resigned to becoming another statistic, she’s spurred on by her odds-defying determination to be a better mother to her baby boy, whose arrestingly joyful smile would surely melt the cynical resolve of the most hardened of skeptics.

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‘For Ahkeem’

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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