Helicopter parents Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson had an interesting idea and made an interesting documentary — interesting, but often as frustrating as it is satisfying. In “American Promise,” the New York-dwelling African- and Haitian-American couple, respectively, decided to document their son Idris’s career as a student at Manhattan’s exclusive Dalton School. They followed him from age 5 through his graduation and departure for college.
The plus side? The filmmakers have unlimited access to their subject. The downside? They don’t have the distance a disinterested director and more rigorous editors might have brought to the project.
Apparently, the couple began their doc with a larger sociological perspective in mind, hoping to focus on some other, largely white Dalton students as well. Think of a sort of Upper East Side version of Michael Apted’s “Seven Up!” series. Oops, here comes a digression: Like many film directors, Apted is now a name often seen in TV credits, and he was responsible for the remarkable episode “Catherine” on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” week before last. Followers of that series will know what I’m talking about.
End of digression. Anyway, Brewster and Stephenson’s ambition for a documentary encompassing many different students went by the wayside. “Promise” instead ends up focusing on only two kids, their own and Suen, another young black boy-to-man.
Even though Dalton includes white, middle-aged female administrators with so-WASPy-you-can’t-make-it-up first names like “Babby,” the school’s staff seem to be genuinely devoted to ethnic diversity. Brewster and Stephenson are baffled — like any parent from any racial background — when the bright, accomplished child they know at home starts being labeled a problem kid by his teachers.
Early on the movie verges on becoming a case of “we said/they said.” Then, strangely, that dialectical setup — between what Dalton reps say about Idris, and what Idris’s parents believe — falls away, and “American Promise” becomes a little amorphous. It’s a long-form home movie packed with the best intentions, but not much structure or inherent drama to push it forward.
Lack of momentum is not the main frustration here. The ways people of color are treated — bullied, ignored, put on a pedestal, vilified, or just treated like one of the kids — is a fascinating and important subject. On graduation day at Dalton, Idris is surrounded by his friends, all students of color like him. And in the welter of white that is Dalton, you wonder, How did this happen, exactly? Does like always seek out like?
Given the 12 years that they pursued this project, you wish Brewster and Stephenson had brought in some experts, other than the occasional Dalton talking head, to weigh in on this topic. The movie suggests a thesis, but without ever clearly stating or pursuing one. And Seun, the other boy, starts to become more of a footnote as the movie continues, exactly when he becomes more important — when he’s compelled to leave Dalton and enroll in a Brooklyn public high school.
You have to both admire and question Idris’s parents’ intentions as you follow the film. Parents from any background will probably find multiple points of identification here. But the going is often as irritating as Idris himself probably found it. As two people who pulled themselves up by proverbial bootstraps, Joe and Michèle bring their own standard of gumption and work ethic to the son they raised in much cushier circumstances than their own. They seem loudly baffled that he is not doing the metaphoric, intellectual equivalent of walking two miles barefoot through the snow. For all the hopes and expectations they project on him, they sometimes don’t see who he actually is.
Here’s something that could have been a vital part of the movie — if we had gotten to see some of the parent/child negotiations that went into Idris’s decision to allow his parents to follow him around with a camera everywhere. But “American Promise” sometimes suggests this was never Idris’s decision to make. It was just another item to strike off on the To Do list his well-meaning, exhausting parents compiled for him.
Oh, and since I’ve already done this once, why not one more time? Here goes another digression:
The other day I saw “12 Years a Slave” and posted on Facebook how powerful and moving it is — one of the best things out there with fantastic performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson and even Brad Pitt.
Several smart, film-loving friends commented, in response, that they didn’t plan to see it. They thought it would be painful. I don’t understand this and I don’t accept it. “Powerful” and “moving” don’t equal painful. If the doctor told you, “Hey, it might hurt a little,” would that convince you not to give birth to your child? See this movie, y’all. It’s important, it’s a work of art, and it’s about who we are.
“American Promise.” A documentary by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson. Unrated. 135 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.