'Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America': Film Review | NYFF 2017

An earnest film whose arguments are best suited to the small screen.

Rory Kennedy's doc visits poor schools whose dearth of tech leaves students ill-educated.

Few Americans who believe in public education would argue that students shouldn't have equal access to technology in 21st-century classrooms. So presumably, the reason for a doc like Rory Kennedy's Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America to exist is that not everyone realizes that some schools remain woefully underfunded; that kids from rich neighborhoods have better facilities; that poverty still begets poverty in our nation. Viewers who don't already understand that will find Net an eye-opener; the rest of us may wonder what this well-meaning but light doc is doing at an event as august as the New York Film Festival.

Narrated by Jamie Foxx, the film enumerates three things a classroom needs to prepare youngsters for the modern world. It argues that, on the hardware front, every student needs his or her own laptop or tablet; those who must share and can't take devices home are handicapped. Then, those electronics require connectivity — with reliable wi-fi in classrooms and access to the internet at home. Lastly, great tech isn't worth much if teachers haven't been prepared to incorporate it into their curricula. In the Los Angeles Unified school district, for instance, a $1 billion-plus plan to give every kid an iPad bombed when teachers were given just two or three days of training. (Other fatal flaws in that plan aren't discussed here.)

Kennedy talks to the usual experts, like Van Jones and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. And she finds students whose wildly different schooling experiences illustrate the problem.

Two schools in the Pennsylvania, for instance, are just 5 miles from each other but might as well be in different countries. In Lansdowne, a high school senior says only one student out of eight can be using a computer at any given time; her calculus classroom has nothing more powerful than a calculator in it. Meanwhile, at Lower Merion High School, girls are building robots, using CAD tools, learning engineering and pairing tablets with their laptops.

The film offers a "how did we get here" section discussing the big role local funding plays in school budgets compared to federal dollars; it follows lawsuits that argue such schemes are unconstitutional.

In the absence of money from Washington, schools scramble to pay for tech with the help of nonprofits and giant corporations. Who can blame them? Kennedy doesn't see any reason to be wary of corporate largesse, and her film's summary insists "... and we need support from nonprofits and the private sector." But moments before this, when we see what help from the private sector looks like, some viewers may balk.

We watch as New York City's P.S. 171 obtains a corporate sponsor that gives tablets to every student: As a warm piano score burbles, each enraptured kid gets a bag with a big Verizon logo on it, pulls out an iPad, and sets it up on a stand emblazoned with "Verizon Innovative Learning."

Not only is the doc unsuspicious of the way this "charitable" program turns classrooms into branding opportunities, it is blind to how Verizon treats the city outside school walls. Despite their having signed a franchise deal with New York in 2008 that promised to make high-speed fiber internet available throughout the city, Fios is still unavailable to huge numbers of New Yorkers in poorer neighborhoods. (Including a film critic who just spent 24 minutes on the phone verifying that fact.) The city sued Verizon in March.

For a film intent on seeing the big picture when it comes to readying America's next generation, this is a big blind spot.


Production company: Moxie Firecracker Films

Distributor: National Geographic Channel

Director: Rory Kennedy

Screenwriters: Tucker Capps, Mark Bailey

Producers: Mark Bailey, Tucker Capps, Rory Kennedy, Martin Pearson

Executive producers: Mark Dowley, Rose Stuckey Kirk, Casey Schlaybaugh, Diego Scotti

Directors of photography: Taylor Johns, Taylor Krauss

Editors: Gillian McCarthy, Charlton McMillan

Composer: Gary Lionelli

Venue: New York Film Festival


56 minutes