Review: 'Approaching the Elephant' is a dispiriting look at education
Made in the style of Frederick Wiseman, a new documentary observes an alternative school that struggles to balance freedom and control.
‘Approaching the Elephant’
Director: Amanda Wilder
4 (out of 5) Globes
One of the first images in the verite-style documentary “Approaching the Elephant” is of a wild-haired young kid, face splattered in white paint. It’s an image right out of “Lord of the Flies,” and the sounds throughout the film back that up: it’s a relentless cacophony of white noise shouting and jibber-jabbering, made by kids allowed to let chaos reign. And yet the setting is a school. We’re at the Teddy McArdle Free School in New Jersey, an alternative place of learning whose first year is decidedly larval. Student run amok, sometimes with sharp hardware, while idealistic young adults just barely try to contain them, if at all.
What’s on screen (and on the soundtrack) is a button-down suburban parent’s nightmare. But what the school is doing is noble. The kids have been sent to there as rebellion against the norm: the programmatic, dysfunctional, corrupt education system that thoughtlessly churns out product. “Approaching the Elephant” would pair well with Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 salvo “High School,” which found independent kids being ground down by teachers who too were mere cogs in a rickety system. Here, we watch an institution trying not to be an institution and becoming one anyway. The staffers, including excitable but flustered school director Alex Khost, tries to let their young charges do what they want, to discover things for themselves.
But it’s clear they’re uncomfortable with how free they are, and begins the hunt for an awkward middle ground. Khost holds meetings in which he attempts to involve his students in the structure of their school, talking to them on the same level, only to be taken aback when they act precocious. Lucy, a little girl, speaks in a way that combines insolence and mature confidence, while Khost — who confesses to being bullied in public school — finds himself reduced to an emotional immaturity, railing against his more complicated students about how bad they make him feel. (Who said this, Khost or a kid?: “I don’t like being abused by people who are mean.”) By film’s end, he’s asserting his dominance by reminding them of his position — the very kind of power structure the school was supposed to defy.
“Approaching the Elephant” has more in common with “High School” than subject matter: It’s made in a Wiseman-esque fashion. After a very un-Wiseman-like text introduction — the non-fiction legend just throws you into his microcosms, and often you have to go outside the film to find out where it was shot — director Amanda Wilder plunges viewers into a world in progress, which has been filmed in the old black-and-white “Academy ratio” format. Also like Wiseman, there’s no sense of how much time has elapsed, and scenes are structured in a way that they give on the appearance of being fly-on-the-wall, when they’ve been tightly structured. What made it on-screen is there for a reason, and what the film means to say — and it means to say something very complex — can be gleaned by individual lines obliviously said by subjects in passing.
This isn’t reality unvarnished but a highly subjective take on real life, one that keeps changing the more it goes on. Initially the school can seem wildly out of control. As the length goes on, one is subtly encouraged to question the very nature of education — how it’s a non-stop struggle to find that line between teaching and letting a kid discover the world for her or himself. It may seem the film is deeply critical of the school itself, but it winds up showing that when it comes to how to even adequately raise a kid, none of us, anywhere, knows anything.