“Can You Dig This” tracks the natural cycle of a garden’s growth, and pairs it with the man-made roadblocks capable of cutting it short. Such a timeframe means an extensive period of prep and execution in the company of four South Los Angeles groups and individuals — all dedicated to urban gardening in their own way. It’s incredible how much director Delila Vallot (“Tunnel Vision”) observes through the inspiring crew she follows.
It’s a truly diverse cast of characters at play in and around Compton, California, and the only one who embraces the gardening cause full force is also the youngest. Quimonie Lewis is an eight-year-old with four sisters and a father, Randy, who serves as president of the Compton housing project where they live. Quimonie’s fiercely determined personality finds an on-site community garden as the answer to three troubles in her life: her father’s health troubles due to an all-meat diet, lack of income, and the benefit of free, organic food grown themselves.
The others confess an accidental pull to the soil. Mychael “Spicey” Evans is a 23-year-old former gang member who views a job at the community garden as a gateway to an eventual pot-growing operation, but quickly finds a calming vibe instead. Same with Kenya Johnson, who works with Spicey on her path toward stability and a dream job in nursing. After serving 30 years in prison, the much older Hosea Smith spots the opportunity at his halfway house residence to find a new focus in life. And then there’s Ron Finley, a “guerilla gardener” whose vibrant sidewalk plot sparked citations from the city council and ended up a national story and resulting TED Talk.
One-on-one, Vallot’s voice behind the camera is highly sensitive, gentle, and a pinch naïve, which, turns out, is perhaps the finest sneak-attack approach to an environment where expression confines itself to few outlets. Spicey especially find Vallot’s demeanor endlessly amusing, rolling his eyes to her questions about the emotional heft of gardening and his gang affiliations. He brushes them off, yet you see some underlying interest in speaking freely. Meanwhile, Vallot’s methods are perfectly aligned with Quimonie, who chats away as she zips around preparing her garden, drinking coffee, and explaining the hustle of being a tiny entrepreneur.
With a common goal of garden growth in mind, the narrative strands are clear and precise as can be — what’s left are the shifting states, struggles, and victories of the people trying to achieve it. Vallot only shifts matter toward the explicitly political toward the end, bringing up title cards and Finley’s urge for people to build a “#growsomeshit” movement. The previous 75 minutes of the film naturally exemplify the fight to open up gardening beyond its perception as “white people stuff,” and also examine the affecting and lasting relationships it can produce.
Chief among these are Quimonie and her father, exploring the dire consequences that Randy’s diet could hold if not improved immediately, and also Hosea’s collaboration and kinship with another halfway house resident on their garden project. Both stories build toward an optimistic uplift, but they hold some truly touching and heart-wrenching moments along the way.
Vallot’s filmmaking occasionally strays away from her tone of immediacy, as rather affected soundtrack cues from 50 Cent and Ludacris date and overtake the action onscreen. A selection of shaggily composed or edited scenes also distract at times— certain angles or post-stabilized shots diminish the action — but when the documentary core of the piece is this strong, the visual aspects are more easily forgiven.
Overall “Can You Dig This” gets the job done wonderfully — Vallot and her collaborators effectively translate the madness, thrill, and societal obstacles of achieving a healthier system of food production in South Los Angeles and beyond. There are shades of activism, real heart, and an inspiring tone, delivered entertainingly with a group of expertly chosen subjects. [B+]