For any parent, there’s an ongoing question over where to put the guardrails: Raising children in an environment that’s too structured and restricting risks limiting their ability to pursue their interests, establish their independence, and think for themselves. Being too permissive may produce children who are poorly behaved, difficult to teach, and unable to abide by the common rules that govern the household and society at large. And when it comes to public schools, with their entrenched curricula, standardized tests, and unending bureaucracy and dysfunction, the problem deepens, especially for those parents who would rather not have their children’s uniqueness squeezed out by conformist factories. For some, reform takes the shape of a wrecking ball.
Enrolling in the vérité school of documentary filmmaking—the “Academy ratio” black-and-white photography specifically recalls Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 touchstone High School—Amanda Rose Wilder’s immersive documentary Approaching The Elephant considers the alternative. Wilder covers the first year at Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, New Jersey, a small experimental program tucked in the halls of a Lutheran church. Led by Alex Khost, a thoughtful, idealistic young teacher, the school doesn’t have conventional classes, and the children are free to do as they please, whether that means picking up lessons in woodshop, music, or art, or riding their bikes around the parking lot. There are rules, but save for a few basic safety guidelines, those rules are determined from scratch by a committee of adults and children—and in a true democratic spirit, everyone has an equal vote. But literally and metaphorically, the children control the chamber.
Wilder keeps context to an absolute minimum, bookending the film with a few lines about the anarchist history of free schools (at present, there are about 260 of them worldwide) and a J.D. Salinger quote that accounts for the title. It’s hard to know, for example, how much time has passed, or to get any sense of what these students have learned over the course of the school year, much less how they compare to public-school kids. (At one point, Alex wonders aloud if the experiment is working. His answer: “We’ll know in 20 years.”) But much of the observational brilliance of Approaching The Elephant comes from how closely form relates to content: Out of chaos comes order, both at Teddy McArdle and in the film, which brings the personalities and conflicts into sharper focus as it goes along. What follows is a psychodrama of often-startling intensity, as the bullies learn to exploit the system and needle at the vulnerabilities of their fellow students and teachers. It’s little wonder that Wilder opens with a shot of kids slathered in face-paint: Approaching The Elephant is a conch shell away from Peter Brook’s Lord Of The Flies adaptation.
The malevolent star of the film is Jiovanni, a mop-haired chaos agent who serves as a prime example of Teddy McArdle’s chief flaw: It’s a magnet for kids who would get kicked out of other schools. When Alex reads off the violations that earned Jio a two-week suspension, it sounds like the rap sheet of an inmate at a maximum-security prison, the sort wheeled into courtrooms like Hannibal Lecter. Yet in the endless meetings that litter the film—students can call impromptu sessions to resolve conflicts—glimmers of the school’s ragged idealism still sparkle through. When Lucy, a deeply complicated and emotional case, accuses Alex of harassment for not allowing kids to jump from a file cabinet to a mattress below, the absurdity may be self-evident. But the process requires everyone to think through the rules, construct an argument, and figure out how to square their needs and desires with those of others who might be affected by them. Even in a common-sense situation like this one, there are valuable lessons here on independent thinking and empathy that other schools are ill-equipped to teach.
Though Approaching The Elephant is speckled with subtle commentary, much of it comic—lightly supervised 10-year-olds (and under) running around with hammers and hacksaws is a metaphor Wilder cannot resist—the film’s tone is one of sympathetic observation. In many ways, it’s the inverse of Wiseman’s High School, bringing vérité style to bear not on a cold institution, but one that’s hot with the volatility and emotion of an unsettled place where rules are being created on the fly. The inaugural year of Teddy McArdle Free School looks like a boondoggle, but the experiment—and Approaching The Elephant—stands as a useful provocation, asking audiences to rethink the educational standards and dictates we accept too blithely.