'At the Ready': Film Review | Sundance 2021

At the Ready
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
An occasionally inspiring, occasionally disconcerting look at teens processing the world.

Director Maisie Crow follows a group of El Paso high school students in a law enforcement training program over the course of one life-changing year.

One of last year's big Sundance breakouts was the documentary Boys State, in which high school students play-acted the mechanics of American democracy with results that were simultaneously inspiring and disheartening.

Hitting a somewhat similar sweet spot is Maisie Crow's At the Ready, another documentary portrait of Texas teens dipping their toes into grown-up professional waters. If the image of kids experimenting with parliamentary procedure and political debate was disturbing, wait until you spent 100 minutes watching students learn about no-knock warrants and active shooter procedures. At the Ready generates a lot of the same inspiration and concern, but the subject matter here makes it less of a pure crowd-pleaser because the stakes may be more specific and more harrowing.

For At the Ready, Crow embedded herself in the law enforcement education program at Horizon High School in El Paso, aimed at training future police officers, security guards and, particularly given the school's location, border and immigration officers. Many of the students enrolled in the program are Latinx, several first-generation Americans, and the film plays out between 2018 and 2019 against the backdrop of heightened Trump rhetoric, increased news coverage of family separations at the border and the Senatorial race between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke. It should be noted, for those who are trepidatious about such things, that the 2019 El Paso mass shooting, an anti-immigrant hate crime, is not a part of the story.

While historical signposts do feature in Crow's narrative, At the Ready builds instead to a competition featuring the school's Criminal Justice Club participating in a series of judged procedural drills. There's much to be disturbed by in the images of these young subjects running through simulated classrooms and staged apartments brandishing fake guns.

If you come into At the Ready with your ideology on both border and law enforcement issues in place — and most people will — Crow's style, which is patient and observational, can be uncomfortable, clearly dogmatic but without the dogma immediately expressed. Her previous feature, the Emmy-winning Jackson, was a documentary about abortion in Mississippi — a film in which you could generally sense the director's perspective, but one in which the anti-abortion faction was given full voice.

The subjects in At the Ready are, by their very presence here, teens gravitating toward law enforcement. There are some students who are devoted to a terrifying degree, students who treat these training activities as almost a sadistic game and who parrot Trump administration talking points readily. Those aren't Crow's featured characters. Instead, she's following teens whose positions are nuanced, and the documentary traces each of their journeys.

Documentaries like this force us to make odd reflexive judgments on subjects who are too young to vote (or at least drink), and I'm as guilty as anyone of responding to certain Boys State figures with, "Man, I hate that guy" — as if hating a 17-year-old based on a heavily edited documentary is a sane response. Overall, Crow has smartly picked subjects who come across as, at worst, unformed; she was going to walk into this particular club and find somebody who was like, "I'm taking these classes because I think our immigration policy is a disaster and our police need to be defunded." They're all complicated, and your reading of their motivations and aspirations may change as their own understanding changes.

There's Cristina, a recent graduate eager to make her way onto the border patrol. She's the daughter of a proud immigrant who views his daughter's direction as the embodiment of the American Dream, even as he understands that this choice won't necessarily make her popular in the community. There's Cesar, conflicted about his path because his father is on the other side of the border, having been deported after a drug infraction. Finally, and perhaps most centrally, there's Mason, who came out as transgender after the filming of the documentary and who is know as "Kassy" here. Mason, struggling with loneliness stemming from an oft-absent trucker father, found a family in the Criminal Justice Club; the program's instructors, all former law enforcement, make him the club's commander for the school year.

Part of me sometimes watches Crow's films and wants them to race to judgment, to condemn the buffoonish former cop spouting Ted Cruz talking points, to make an example of the immature boys cracking jokes during live-shooting prep. But that's not who she is as a filmmaker. Crow, who serves as her own cinematographer, is characterized by her restraint: Here she holds back, letting her central characters learn their lessons as they go, letting the events of history play out without commentary and letting the camera catch the other students react naturally to the hallway war games that seem to be taking place after the final bell.

It's a patience that's generally rewarded, whether through Mason's on-camera self-interrogation and self-discovery, Cristina's slow political awakening or Cesar's eye-opening experiences with his father. And it all unfolds with much more polish than Crow's Jackson (available to watch on HBO Max), in which the digital video ugliness played its own role in the harsh story being told.

The documentary isn't as thorough or enlightening on border issues as something like Netflix's Immigration Nation, but the young heroes make At the Ready a good vehicle through which many viewers will be able to process their own preconceptions and opinions.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production Companys: JustFilms, Ford Foundation, XTR, Anonymous Content, The Big Bend Sentinel and Fierce Films
Director & Cinematographer: Maisie Crow
Producers: Maisie Crow, Abbie Perrault, Hillary Pierce
Editors: Nina Vizcarrondo, Austin Reedy

100 minutes