Most would agree that America’s public schools have their significant flaws, but are there any alternatives that are better? That’s the provocative question asked by Approaching the Elephant, a documentary about an untraditional school in its early stages—and what’s best about this film is that its answer is far from conclusive by the end. With patience and a clear-eyed perspective, Approaching the Elephant goes beyond weighing the value of what’s known as “free schools” to consider how children develop and what role teachers have in shaping them.
Directed by Amanda Rose Wilder, who also operated the camera, Approaching the Elephant is presented in black-and-white, although the film’s findings remain decidedly in the grey. We’re introduced to the Teddy McArdle Free School, a brand new New Jersey school for grade-school students that doesn’t advocate conventional classes or rules. Instead, led by Alex Khost, a passionate teacher and the film’s central adult figure, this free school operates as a democracy, allowing the students to vote on how matters like disciplinary measures should be handled. (If a student is angry with another student’s behavior, he or she can call a hearing in which both sides of the dispute are heard.)
An opening title card informs us that there are approximately 260 free schools around the world, and indeed the free-school system has been in existence for almost 100 years. But in Approaching the Elephant’s early stretches, the Teddy McArdle Free School’s slightly hippie-ish attitude toward education appears to be both laughably and frighteningly misguided. (We see scenes of children clumsily trying to use hacksaws, supervised by grownups who don’t seem sufficiently concerned that fingers could easily be cut off.) Wilder calmly captures the chaos that results from the newfound freedoms afforded these kids, some of whom have come to Teddy McArdle because of disciplinary problems at their old schools. The anarchic atmosphere never quite reaches the level of Lord of the Flies, but when a bully named Jiovanni begins tormenting a sweet girl named Lucy—and the matter isn’t resolved in the typical punitive way we’d expect from a teacher—a problem starts to escalate. What good is allowing children to have a say in their schooling if they’re too young to appreciate the privilege?
But just as we’re about to write off Teddy McArdle Free School and Alex, something remarkable happens. It’s best not to reveal too much, but suffice it to say that while the school’s democratic system remains problematic throughout, Alex’s insistence in treating his pupils like adults starts to reap unexpected dividends. Wilder doesn’t conduct traditional interviews with her subjects, preferring a direct-cinema approach in which she observes activities from the sidelines, letting individuals’ actions speak for themselves. Her technique has its gradual rewards as well: What we eventually observe is the forging of a deep relationship between Alex and his students—a relationship in which he has as much riding as they do. He wants this school to succeed, but he can’t do it without the children’s willingness to own their stake in it as well.
In the cruder, less inquisitive version of Approaching the Elephant, Alex’s giddy optimism about launching a free school—something he wished he’d had when he was in traditional public school—would be satirized, Teddy McArdle’s repeated failings underlining the foolishness of his dream. But while Wilder never seems to be endorsing free schools outright, she’s respectful enough to balance the pros and cons of Alex’s approach, wondering how such a curriculum affects young children and pondering the ways it might be superior to conventional schooling.
Just as valuable, Wilder spends ample time chronicling the unpredictable, emerging personalities of the students. With children ranging in age from about five to 10, Teddy McArdle is almost a laboratory in which to monitor the developmental growth of young people. Jiovanni and Lucy are the documentary’s principal child subjects, and they’re fascinatingly inconsistent individuals. Jiovanni can be aggressive and disrespectful, flipping off teachers and swearing at them behind their backs, but he’s got such charisma that, as one instructor notes, he could be a leader if he just applied himself. Likewise, Lucy might seem like a darling, innocent girl, but she has other sides to her as well. What Approaching the Elephant makes plain is that no school model is perfect, and that they all must respond to the needs of their particular students.
Maybe that’s why Approaching the Elephant refuses to judge Alex and his ambitious, unconventional school too harshly. Teaching the next generation is a demanding, treacherous job in even the most ideal circumstances. Alex’s system has its failings, but its desire to find new ways to empower young people is a notion that can’t be so easily brushed aside.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Amanda Rose Wilder
Release Date: Premiering at the 2014 True/False Film Festival