If You Build It is rich in material, less so in structure
In If You Build It, a documentary about a high-concept high school product-design class in, of all places, rural North Carolina, director Patrick Creadon collects rich material but builds a rickety structure. The program is Studio H, led by two enterprising, idealistic architects who are brought to rural Bertie County to inject new life into a stalled community's educational system by a visionary superintendent of schools — who, early in the film, is canned by the stuck-in-the-mud school board, marking the last we see of him. The board agrees to continue with Studio H only after the designers, Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller, agree to forgo any salary. Creadon's great strength here is in his unsentimental introduction of a slice of America often treated with sentimentality bordering on condescension. These are real people, working hard on a set of creative challenges that seem to have the potential to transform the students' attitude toward school and work — and maybe even aid the community's economic revitalization. But Creadon unveils his story in a haphazard, backwards-unfolding way. Ultimately, the town is ecstatic about a farmers' market designed and built by the Studio H classroom, and the kids are clearly affected by the experience. But it's not clear what it means for their education or their lives. And in the end, Pilloton and Miller pack up and take Studio H to Berkeley.
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