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If You Build It (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

If You Build It


Featuring Emily Pilloton, Matt Miller, Cameron Perry, Eric Wandmacher, Kerron Hayes, Stevie Mizelle, Erick Bowen, Jamesha Thompson, Rodecoe Dunlow, Anthony Johnson, CJ Robertson, Colin White, Alexia Williams, Ron Wesson, Jim Hoggard, Brad Feinknopf, Cheryl Byrum, Wilbert Bishop and Dr. Chip Zullinger.

Directed by Patrick Creadon.

Distributed by Long Shot Factory. 85 minutes. Not Rated.

Modern education, particularly in depressed areas of the country, has sadly become terribly streamlined.  Schools often barely have the money for books, how are they going to afford elective subjects like the arts and some sports and home economics? 

The problem with this is simple and stark.  Not all students will be interested… or even talented… in all of the most traditional courses.  School is supposed to open up a wide range of opportunities and interests to the children, exposing them to as many options as possible.  In these days of budget cuts and limited curriculums, aren’t the students missing out on many life opportunities which may appeal to them?

This is one of the central questions behind If You Build It, the latest documentary by director Patrick Creadon, who previously looked at American life with Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A.

If You Build It borrowed its title from an iconic line from the movie Field of Dreams, but it is notable that the new doc only uses half of that movie quote.  (The original line was “If you build it, they will come.”)  In that film, Kevin Costner is convinced to build a baseball diamond in the middle of an old cornfield.  While If You Build It also looks at building a gathering place on an empty field of dreams, whether “they come” is almost beyond the point.

(A long, long list of Kickstarter donations in the end credits of the film suggest that the title may in some strange ways refer to the movie itself as well.)

The whole point is in the making of something, not in what happens once it is indeed up, though the opening day does look promising.

The movie looks at Bertie county in North Carolina, one of the poorest regions of the state.  Matt Miller and Emily Pilloton are two young teachers and carpenters who tend to go to impoverished areas to teach the skill of building.  They’ve barely arrived in town when their funding is cut off – they have to agree to work for free in order to keep their jobs – but the two decide to stay and give some of the local high school kids a crash course which they call Studio H.

What they teach a slightly more high-pressure version the type of thing that in the old days was known as industrial arts or shop class, but has been pretty much budgeted out of modern school districts.  In a matter of 28 weeks, they will teach the kids to go from making pipes from manure to making chicken coops to finally building a farmer’s market for the community.

The movie mostly concentrates on the teachers and their students, looking at their lives in and outside of the classroom to make the point that the kids will be sponges to learn things they may be able to use in life that they would normally never be exposed to.  And the skills they learn from the carpentry and design will benefit them in other walks of life.

If You Build It is such a good-natured and purely intentioned film that it is hard to really give the film a hard time, though it is noticeable that the background story is not exactly fleshed out.  We have no idea how exactly these kids were picked for this particular elective, or how they really fit this time-consuming extra course into their daily life. 

We also never find out exactly how Miller and Pilloton are able to afford this little adventure – beyond hearing the broadest strokes of putting a lot of it on credit.  Yet we never totally see the effect that this nine-month unpaid full-time gig far from home has on the young couple, either monetarily or personally.

Still the film works best in showing yet again the importance of a wide range of elective courses in education.  While occasionally the students seem a touch too effusive in their praise of their teachers – I get they appreciate them, but sometimes they feel like they are playing for the cameras – it is obvious that through education Miller and Pilloton were able to reach their students.

In a world where teachers are more and more being marginalized, this lesson alone makes this an important film.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: March 7, 2014.

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