Don't Tell Me I Can't!: Film Review

Kids take the lead in this spunky doc about creativity and teamwork.

Documentarian Vandana Tilak captures the action at Destination ImagiNation, a global educational tournament for kids and young adults aged 5-25.

Another entry in the seemingly inexhaustible succession of kids’ competition documentaries, Don’t Tell Me I Can’t! manages to keep things fresh by profiling a unique problem-solving contest now in its 26th year. Well-suited to educational settings and perhaps a narrowly targeted DVD release, the doc could also see limited public broadcasting exposure.

Founded in 1999, Destination ImagiNation(DI) is a global educational tournamentfor kids and young adults aged 5-25 now established throughout the U.S. and more than 20 foreign countries. DI organizers design each year’s competitive problems and regional playoffs lead contestants to the DI finals, which bring teams of kids from all over the world to Knoxville, Tennessee every May.

In 2010, 16,000 participants came together for four days of competition, recreation and celebration at 80 venues all over Knoxville. Hundreds of area residents and supporters from across the country volunteered to assist with event organization, logistics and evaluating the competitors’ execution of assigned challenges.

The film follows five state championship teams from Southern California to the finals, including fourth-graders the Funky Junky Monkeys, middle-schoolers the Neon Ninjas and three high-school groups. While the younger students take on theater arts projects incorporating script writing, improv skits and homemade props and costumes, the older teens select initiatives focusing on engineering/technical challenges or social issues. Although parents and teachers play supportive roles, DI guidelines prohibit adults from participating directly in the projects, which rely entirely on youthful imagination and ingenuity.

While some of these students might be considered outright geeky in a typical school setting, DI becomes a transformational experience for many participants. “Don’t tell me I can’t” becomes the kids’ rallying cry as they respond to their challenges.

First-time filmmaker and former DI mom Vandana Tilak profiles team members, follows events and interviews DI organizers and volunteers for a well-rounded perspective on the global event. Many of the interviewees are impressively articulate, but the doc’s narrow scope makes it difficult to get a sense of the significance of the DI experience for the young competitors beyond the tournament phase. Camerawork and production values are adequate, supported by Marc Cahill’s fluid editing, although the film’s voiceover narration has a tendency to over-enthuse and become rather cloying.

Venue: USC School of Cinematic Arts screening series
Production company: Bombay Pictures
Director/producer: Vandana Tilak
Screenwriters: Vandana Tilak, Charles Wachter
Directors of photography: Kevin Derek, Rob Marish
Music: Tom Corkran
Editor: Marc Cahill
No rating, 59 minutes

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