Approaching the Elephant
Amanda Rose Wilder’s nuanced and passionate documentary, about the first year of a “free” elementary school in New Jersey, reveals the glories and the limitations of unstructured classrooms and observational filmmaking alike. The school is founded on the principle of student self-regulation. There are no required classes, and all rules are decided democratically by the students (of whom there are about a dozen, all seemingly around seven years old); the teachers function mainly as safety officers, consultants, and parliamentarians. Wilder catches a hint of drama early on and develops it insightfully: the effect on the group of Jio, a tall, spirited boy who overflows with both positive creative energy and destructive social energy. He’s in danger of being voted out of the school by his classmates, yet, when he is ultimately suspended, the class philosopher, Lucy, whom he had bullied, says, “I don’t like the things he does, but it’s boring when he’s not here.” —Richard Brody
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