Editor’s note: Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go is available to view on line from 29 July through 27 September.
With a few words, I could change the world.
“Who did you hurt today?” a teacher asks her student. The freckle-faced boy looks distracted, even perplexed, as if unsure how to answer. The next question is more precise: “What exactly did you do to Julie to hurt her?” Still, he has no answer.
This scene at the start of Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go lays out the complicated dilemmas without good answers that face students and staff daily at Oxfordshire’s Mulberry Bush, a school for “excluded” children, tossed from other schools for bad behavior and incomprehensible attitudes, usually emerging from traumatic backgrounds. The kids curse, hit and kick, throw furniture and yowl. Again and again, they seek attention even as they reject it.
Kim Longinetto’s disturbing and often riveting documentary, premiering on U.S. television as part of PBS’ POV series tonight, uses the kids’ stories to ask pressing questions about cultural norms and expectations. The film’s title suggests at least one source of conflict. The children featured in Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go understand they’ve been cast out and feel helpless about it, yet they also seek to be inside; as they feel rejected, they resent the routines they’ll never quite manage, not to mention the people to whom they seem to come easily. Nothing for the excluded kids is easy.
Most of the 40 students at the Mulberry Bush are expected to spend three years there. It is, the film notes, “their last chance to get a normal life.” What that means—the “last chance” or the “normal life”—is not completely clear. “The staff have been trained to restrain children to keep them safe,” from each other and themselves. But the definition of what’s safe is imposed by authorities: “You find it safe to have an adult around you all the time,” one staffer tells young Alex, who is visibly agitated “I’m starting to think the only time you feel safe is when you have an adult around.”
Remarkably, Longinotto’s camera never appears to cast judgment, instead keeping a verité-style detachment from all subjects, whether children or adults. As the kids act out, teachers and parents also perform according to expectations, helping their charges to sort through possible reasons for their violence and fear, or to discover other ways of expressing themselves. .“Why do you think you keep spitting at people?” a staff person asks David. “I’m angry,” he says, having been at this for some time. “I do want to break the pattern,” he agrees, then recounts how fretful he feels that his father is getting marries in February, so that David feels left out—again.
The difference between “normalcy” and “deviance (or between feeling safe or hurting) is, at some fundamental level, a matter of performance. You can act your way into rewards and acceptance, just as you can assure your exclusion by breaking rules of behavior. Alex notices that the teachers are imperfect, further undermining his hope that “normal” even makes sense. “Why do all the adults get things wrong?” he says sadly. “One day,” a teacher says, “You can go to a mainstream school. But in a mainstream school, Alex, you can’t be under the table all the time, can you?” She may be right, but David has reason to hide: his best friend Ben has the tendency to turn violent without warning, and, over the course of the film, one outburst sends David to the infirmary. Ben is sorry, and worries that he’s unable to control himself. “The older you get,” a counselor cautions, “the more you are going to have to deal with the things that you do and take responsibility.”
This is a question the film asks repeatedly - and in different contexts—and never quite resolves. While the children struggle to avoid or accept responsibility for what they “do,” they are also immersed in a film project that can’t be their own decision. The adults acknowledge the camera as a “witness,” a means to document events. The children, however, are unable to grant such informed consent, both by legal age and by emotional state. The boys—and all the featured subjects are boys, though girls attend the school as well—argue with parents and staffers, act out with their peers, and worry themselves into frenzies. The caretakers reason with them, restrain them and reward them, hoping against hope that all will make steps forward.
When Charlie’s mum comes to visit, he’s briefly buoyed by the possibility that, not only he might leave the school, but he might also be wanted. “He’s got something going on inside his head all the time,” his parents observe, unable to fathom him. This much is clear in Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go: the children of Mulberry Bush do keep busy in their heads. Just how they might translate this for anxious, devoted, or distracted adults, is another question.