'The Road Up': Film Review

Courtesy of Greg Jacobs
Caught in a pre-COVID bubble.

Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs' documentary about a Chicago jobs program features an inspiring training coach.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some films take on more relevance than anyone could have planned. (Contagion is just the start.) The Road Up, a worthwhile new documentary about a Chicago jobs-training program, has the bad luck to be the opposite kind. It takes viewers into a program called Cara, which offers practical help to people who are especially challenged in finding employment, often because of prison sentences or personal histories with drugs.

Cara's heartfelt message of hope still stands, but must have been far more convincing before the pandemic caused unemployment numbers to soar. What now? Much of The Road Up was shot in 2016, but it feels like an artifact from the distant past, desperately in need of an update. Sturdy but minor, it is part of the Chicago International Film Festival,  and might play to local interest.

The directors, Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs (producers of the 2008 documentary 102 Minutes That Changed America, about the 9/11 terror attacks), take a no-frills approach. There are many aspects of Cara, including placement, but the film wisely focuses on the most dynamic. It follows a single four-week training course called Transformations led by Jesse Teverbaugh, the kind of real-life personality and on-screen presence that documentarians can only hope to find. The members of this particular group  are mostly middle-aged or approaching it, some living in shelters. The course is less about job skills than creating self-confidence and teaching people how to face the world.

In a shirt and tie that makes him look like the average corporate middle-manager, Teverbaugh asks questions and demands answers from the participants, taking no excuses for their past failures and making no judgments. He holds up a full-length mirror and makes each person look into it, asking what they see. The responses are devastating, a series of personal screw-ups and recriminations. He pushes them to take responsibility, yells to make his points and then convincingly leads them to believe, "My mistakes are not who I am." Psychologically astute and always empathetic, he is so impressive in his role and so lively on screen that he keeps you with the film even as you're wondering, "What jobs?"

Teverbaugh articulates Cara's philosophy in voiceover. His group members are poor and many are Black, but the systemic problems of racism and poverty can be too overwhelming to grapple with. "We'll get too angry," he says. "So how about we attack it one human being at a time?"

The film also follows four of Cara's participants, with less successful results for the narrative. We see them occasionally in mock job interviews or telling us their backstories. Kristen is a young woman from Missouri who moved to Chicago, became swept up in club life and developed a heroin addiction. She did not want to be in Cara but knows she needs to be. It is refreshing to hear her say that she didn't want to "drink the Kool-Aid." Amazingly, The Road Up presents the Transformations sessions without making them feel like psychobabble, as Kristen and the movies' viewers might have feared.

Another member, Clarence, says he has disappointed his wife and family. He bristles easily as he struggles with a way back. Tamala, sober for 13 months, had been addicted and homeless for 25 years. Alisa tries to get to the point where she can see her two small children still living in Trinidad, whom she hasn't been with for several years. These stories are merely sketched in, leaving giant gaps that make their characters less complete than they might have been. But one of the film's strengths is that it does not minimize their challenges and is not starry-eyed about their prospects.

In a moving sequence toward the end, Teverbaugh tells the group about his own past, a story of letting life fall apart and of coming back stronger. It explains the source of his understanding and compassion. At times, the present intrudes on the film's time warp too much to ignore, though, as it does when he gives the class an exercise: visit an estranged  loved one and take that person's face in your hands. They practice this in the session, but now the exercise is a reminder of how impossible that intimate gesture would be in a room full of strangers. The Cara website says that the program has placed more than 400 people in jobs since the pandemic shutdown. That is good news, but it doesn't make the documentary any more timely.

Production Company: Siskel/Jacob Productions

Directors: Greg Jacobs, Jon Siskel

Producer: Rachel Pikelny

Cinematography: Stephan Mazurek

Editor: John Farbrother

Music: Joshua Abrams

Sales: Annie Roney, ro*co films

Venue: Chicago International Film Festival

93 minutes