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Pahokee
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by Jay Seaver

"The kids are doing better than you might think."
4 stars

There's a lot of high-school football in the middle of "Pahokee", enough to make one wonder if that was sort of the plan or if it just sort of evolved that way because that's what this sort of small town is like. It doesn't truly feel like a plan, but this isn't the sort of documentary you necessarily make with a plan. You take what you get and put it together as well as this.

It follows four seniors in Pahokee High School, with Pahokee being a rural town in Florida's Palm Beach County. Curvy and confident Na'Kerria is focused on the "Miss PHS" contest tied to the upcoming Homecoming ceremonies, starting to campaign as soon as she's technically allowed. Jocabed frets over college essays while working in her parents' taco stand, while B.J. is aiming for a football scholarship while also making sure the schools he applies to have good sports medicine programs. Junior's focus is a bit more immediate; he's in the drum corps, but also focused on his year-old baby girl.

Plug "Pahokee" into a search engine (or even look for the film on IMDB), and you will soon see that the town is at or near the bottom of certain lists, and it would not be surprising for directors Patrick Bresnan & Ivete Lucas were to point that out at some point, especially early on, but they opt not to. They don't hide this, but instead play up how this place feels normal for someone who grew up there, and how those kids aren't necessarily missing any part of growing up in America, just getting the most bare-bones version of it. There's a comment about not having the budget for the much decoration early and a confessional bit about "getting out of this town" toward the end, but in between, the audience just has to absorb how many large families they're seeing in small houses, or how there's not many cuts to anything but the fields. It's a small world.

So, when all the football starts, it's initially easy to just look at it and say that this is more of that one thing than one signed up for as a viewer, but as they play in the homecoming "Muck Bowl" game against a local rival and the playoffs, the viewer gets an idea of just how concentrated the town's identity is concentrated in the team and where they sometimes stand as the opposing teams get whiter, the fields get nicer, and the physical toll on the players, notably B.J., makes one a bit more worried. The aftermath is one of the film's most striking sections, as so much plays out in audio recordings that indicate just how much things are out of the locals' hands, and while the scenes of the fields undergoing controlled burns that play out behind it aren't necessarily indications of bad things themselves, it is nifty filmmaking, getting across the feeling of the world sometimes just won't let people have something.

The focus on that does mean that Jocabed kind of disappears for that stretch - the others are on the team, in the band, or on the cheer squad - but she feels less missing than one might expect since the other threads don't cross much during those pieces, and she'll get more time later when football moves to the past. It's a small town, and everybody's experience is similar, but Bresnan and Lucas (the latter of whom edited the film) make each teen's story their own. They're a likable group, and the filmmakers do a very nice job of capturing where they are at that moment in time, with one foot in childhood even as they're starting to make decisions that are going to affect the rest of their lives.

It makes for a somewhat odd movie, never finding the moment of high drama or sudden change that people tend to remember from this genre of documentary, and never particularly angling for the audience's pity. That's its value - it sees these kids as kids rather than victims or potential saviors, letting the audience become fond of them while still offering a clear view of their lives.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32889&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/30/20 02:27:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Patrick Bresnan
  Ivete Lucas

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