Back in 2008, Nanette Burstein’s American Teen chronicled the lives of a group of teenagers during their senior year at high school, in an attempt to present an authentic look into the everyday realities of being a kid on the verge of adulthood. The result, however, felt constructed, full of talking heads and palatably edited narratives, remaining indistinguishable from any number of similarly themed MTV shows. Plus, the fact that it was filmed in a relatively comfortable middle- to upper-class Midwestern town really only served to update the white suburban blandness of a John Hughes movie for a contemporary audience, rather than get at any honest look into the modern American youth.
Pahokee is a different picture. Using the same structure as Burstein (not that she invented it – Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreine’s Sundance Grand Jury prize winner Seventeen did the same thing back in 1983), filmmakers Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas turn their lens on the small town of Pahokee, Florida and its local high school. Right away, the milieu is striking – located in the middle of the marshy Florida Everglades, Pahokee is often referred to as the poorest town in the state, with the shuttering of many local industry and business centres resulting in record unemployment numbers. Predominantly made up of African- and Mexican-American citizens, there has even been serious ongoing discussions of dissolving the town, which would leave the residents with no immediate government representation.
And yet despite (or maybe because of) this desolate environment, the seniors of Pahokee High School stay focused on their dreams, four of whom are singled out to be our protagonists. Na’Kerria enthusiastically campaigns to be voted Ms. PHS but is ambivalent about what educational path to pursue afterwards. B.J. is counting on his high school football prowess to get him into a prestigious university and then, hopefully, the NFL. Jocabed helps her immigrant family at their roadside taco shack, while nervously submitting college applications in order to make her parents proud. And Junior takes charge of the school marching band as the dynamic lead drummer but, more importantly, he dreams of making money to provide a great life for his young daughter.
The film objectively weaves in and out and around these four lives over the course of its runtime, allowing their hopes and fears to emerge naturally, rather than relying on talking heads (with the exception of a few iPhone confessionals from Na’Kerria) or other convenient documentary tropes. Pahokee presents the town as it is, following homecoming celebrations, a thrilling championship run football season and even an arresting moment of real-life violence with an observational and warmly humanistic eye. With rising smoke from the burning of sugar cane fields ever-present in the background, the film also bestows stunning visual beauty on this hazy southern environment.
While Pahokee is the debut feature from the filmmakers, Bresnan and Lucas have been embedded in the area for the last several years, creating a series of shorts that have played and won awards at Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, TIFF and countless other festivals. And even though this project can sometimes feel a little more explanatory than necessary compared to the evocative succinctness of their short work (particularly 2018’s wonderful Skip Day), it still feels like a heartfelt culmination of their time spent there.
As the graduating class all accept their diplomas upon the end of the school year, you can’t help but smile. Even with the economic and societal odds stacked against them, the future genuinely seems wide open for the teens of Pahokee.
Pahokee is streaming now through the Virtual Paradise Theatre with an online Q&A with the filmmakers on May 2nd. The previous shorts from Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas are available to watch for free on Vimeo.
- Release Date: 4/24/2020