A fly-on-the-wall documentary about four high school seniors in one of Florida’s poorest towns, Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas’s “Pahokee” might seem poised to embrace the nauseatingly ethnographic nature of some “observational” non-fiction cinema, but this sensitive and insightful film is defined by its refusal to other these kids into a socioeconomic zoo exhibit. Here, the camera isn’t some kind of impassable divide that invites its subjects to be looked at rather than reckoned with.
Whether filming one of the marquee football games that have made Pahokee Middle-High School into a major pipeline between poverty and the NFL, or catching a moment of quiet resilience between the team captain and his mom, Bresnan and Lucas feel right there in the thick of things (they even keep rolling in the middle of a park shooting, a scene that could feel extraneous if not for how palpably it proved this point). The doc’s static compositions and patient design may invite some obligatory comparisons to the work of Frederick Wiseman, but “Pahokee” is much less interested in the machinations of the town’s educational system than it is in how they impact its students. However valuable this film might be as a portrait of a public institution, it lands hardest as the patchy but perceptive story of four kids who are still learning how to see themselves.
An energetic, popular girl named Na’Kerria Nelson is the first person we meet, and her quest to win the coveted title of Miss Pahokee High School soon points toward a disconnect between the enduring pageantry of high school life — where kids from all backgrounds can be stars on the field, and kings or queens for a day — and the limited possibilities that will confront these teens once they graduate. A cheerleader who aspires to be a nurse, Na’Kerria knows how much she has to offer the world, but she has some very legitimate anxieties about how much the world actually cares. At one point she visits a college fair, and the old white lady at the Harvard booth stares at this black girl from a low-income family with a look that appears to say “why did we even bother coming to Pahokee?” That’s obviously a dangerous amount of prejudice to assign to a single reaction shot, but it’s safe to assume that Na’Kerria’s hometown pride isn’t always shared by outsiders.
Jocabed Martinez is the kind of student who might fare better with university recruiters, as her narrative is an old favorite among America’s gatekeepers. The academically gifted daughter of Mexican immigrants, Jocabed rocks a 3.8 GPA and dreams of helping underprivileged children; whereas most of her classmates are fueled by school spirit, Jocabed only wants to do right by her parents and reward the sacrifices they made for her future. Like football captain BJ Crawford — a local hero with hopes of going pro — Jocabed wants to get out of Pahokee in order to honor the people who live there, and that tension becomes palpable whenever Bresnan and Lucas’s camera lingers on the town’s humid boulevards and lonely palm trees; seldom has a place felt so haunted and full of life at the same time.
Junior Walker doesn’t quite know where he fits into it, and “Pahokee” internalizes that uncertainty as its own. A fun-loving teenage father who leads the school marching band and refuses to let people see him get down on himself, Junior is determined not to be a product of his environment, even if his daughter will make it difficult for him to go anywhere else. Stuck between the self-discovery of senior year and the responsibilities of raising a kid of his own, Junior fights to define himself even when it feels like the dye is already cast. His plight crystallizes the documentary’s conflict so well that Bresnan and Lucas almost seem afraid to examine it too closely; Junior has the least screen time of the four main cast members, and his absence sticks out in a film that strives to carve an intimate narrative from an objective aesthetic.
Determined to resist the clinical feeling of security footage, “Pahokee” tries to thread the needle between subjective and objective modes; it wants to tell a story about the self-authorship of its subjects, and to do so in a way that never threatens to cloud its vision of the town at large. The attempt is appreciated, even when the film trips over itself. While it can be frustrating that these kids rarely interact, we never doubt that they swim in the same waters. And while it can be jarring and a bit clumsy when Bresnan and Lucas intercut video diaries from their cast (cell phone confessionals shot by the kids themselves) the device becomes a crucial reminder that Na’Kerria, Jocabed, BJ, and Junior are eager to define who they are before the rest of the world does it for them. Shaggy and unformed as “Pahokee” often seems, the film — like its subjects, and the town where they live — is more than the sum of its parts.
“Pahokee” is now available to stream through virtual cinemas. It will be available on VOD on June 2.