"If You Build It" Doesn't Quite Construct the Story it Intended Review

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” So spoke the great Vermonter and philosopher, Professor and Doctor John Dewey. At its core, If You Build It is about that universal truth.

The story does not lack for authentic human drama. The school superintendent, Dr. Chip Zullinger, of bitterly impoverished Bertie County, North Carolina, takes a chance in a failing area and brings two innovative, untraditional new educators to his high school. Designer Emily Pilloton and architect Matt Miller arrive with heady dreams of revitalizing an area on its knees and set up a shop class, entitled “Studio H,” for ten high school juniors, with the objective of teaching design, and then actually building the students’ project – a Farmer’s Market for the town. Not long after, Zullinger is fired by a frustratingly inept school board stuck in old, broken ways, and Matt and Emily lose their funding. Staying on and living lean thanks to limited grants and maxed out credit cards, they keep stepping forward, never giving ground as they break ground on a build that changes everyone’s lives and an entire town.

Quantifying a documentary’s good can be a grueling task. Institutions like Manhattan’s Bank Street College have championed progressive education for generations, but so many places are still resistant to nontraditional and creative approaches designed to reengage uninterested students and fight back against the low prioritization of education by failing communities. It seems unfair to say that most of the kids seem to be living the lives they could have had anyway. Coming from a small town, seeing farmers and firefighters and delivery boys doesn’t seem like the silver bullet a hopeful documentary promises.

And yet, the lessons taken from Studio H seem to have stuck with all of them. Both the Valedictorian and Salutatorian came from Studio H and one student became the first in his family to attend college after the project. For them, education became life, perhaps as it never had before. I think Dewey would agree, that means something.

DVD Bonus Features

The only extras are deleted scenes.

"If You Build It" is on sale June 23, 2015 and is not rated. Documentary. Starring Matthew Miller.

Kyle North • Staff Writer


New Reviews