“School is important, but it’s not one of my top priorities because it’s not interesting.” Just so, Jamesha Thompson lays out the problem facing Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller in If You Build It. A high school student in Windsor, Bertie County, North Carolina, Jamesha here sits in her bedroom, her current focus emphasized by close-ups of her cell phone. This even as she’s surrounded by papers and books and an older sister, working on a handwritten essay, “The Purpose of a College Education.” “That’s why I need a thesaurus,” says the sister, “So I can sound professional.” Jamesha has another idea though, that even if she uses “big words, doesn’t mean you’re going to get big credit for it.” As her sister argues otherwise, that big words help her to convey “big ideas,” the camera cuts to show their home from the outside, a trailer on cinder blocks.
The metaphors here seem obvious, in the contrasts between big ideas and small trailer, hopes for an unknowable future and distraction by a texted present. But Jamesha’s insights are subtle, shaped by the limits of her experience but also by her energies. The complications become a little clearer when you see Jamesha in the classroom at the center of Patrick Creadon’s documentary. Here again, she’s surrounded by elements of the experience that doesn’t interest her, including fellow students, drawing tables and whiteboards.
This classroom is dubbed The Shop by Emily and Matt, partners and designers who’ve arrived in Windsor with the express ambition of delivering a completely new and engaging sort of experience for their students. They mean to have the students design and build a project, an effort to “bring creative problem solving to communities” that are under-planned, under-resourced (an elementary school in Windsor has been refurbished and then abandoned) and, too often, left behind (“I’m leaving [Windsor] because there’s nothing to keep me here,” says Jamesha’s classmate Cameron).
Enthusiastic and determined, Emily and Matt are given their chance by former school superintendent Chip Zullinger. who appears briefly in the film, just long enough to pronounce his reasons for hiring the couple: “When I got Matt and Emily,” he smiles, “I took a big chance on turning them loose. I think that’s what’s most important, because when you turn folks loose, then you’ve got all of their human potential behind them and their idea.”
Ideas are plentiful in The Shop, which Emily describes as a combination “design lab, wood shop, and metal shop,” the start of “all of our experimentation with the kids.” As soon as he speaks, the film reveals that Zullinger’s fired by the local school board, one of several unexplained decisions. Already in town, Emily and Matt fight to keep their now defunded project afloat, agreeing to continue without salaries and paying for the class materials with grants and local auctions.
If You Build It‘s critique of the Bertie County school board — delivered in broad outline rather than details of personalities or politics — serves as well as a critique of public education in the US generally. Lack of innovation, lack of energy or interest: the apparently nonsensical governing mirrors and encourages the sort of attitude Jamesha describes early on. “One of the biggest things that is missing in Bertie County is foresight,” observes Emily, “They make odd choices with how they spend their money,” as the film shows what seems an egregious example, a renovated elementary school left abandoned just two years afterwards: here one of Matt and Emily’s students picks his way through the broken windows and collapsing walls, more or less embodying the board’s deleterious effects.
A couple of scenes show Matt and Emily’s presentations to unnamed board members, but the film keeps focused on their ideas, conveyed in words both big and small to students, who appear variously bored on the first day and then, increasingly engaged. The boys (and all the speaking subjects are boys, apart from Jamesha) eventually join in designing and brainstorming, cutting and building, painting and erecting. Even Jamesha — who begins the semester by announcing, “I’m not the type to get dirty” — finds a way to participate, picking up a video camera to document the class activities. It’s unclear whether the film includes her footage beyond the spots where you see her holding the camera, or what she does with what she records.
The class’ eventual project — the design and construction of a farmers market — appears to be a project benefiting both the growers and consumers, previously stuck with one supermarket in town, prone to jacking up prices because it can. But the effects of this project remain as vague as what happens to Jamesha’s footage. If You Build It tends to montages and time-lapsed skies to imply the many weeks and months it takes students to conjure and develop their ideas, to feel confident or inspired by their own collaborations. You do see some effects: while the farmers market apparently takes more time to complete than expected, it does eventually serve a number of farmers and bakers. Matt and Emily move on, taking the class to Berkeley (where they are presumably paid). But if you know where the Project H goes, all you know about the students who do the building is that they’re left.