'Catching the Sun': Film Review

CATCHING THE SUN still - H 2016
Courtesy of 7th Empire Media
A boosterish but informative and hope-generating eco-doc.

People from all walks of life put their hopes on a solar revolution.

We are well past the point at which the idea of an economy transformed by solar energy and other renewables is new. But America has yet to see the transformation that's happening in some other countries, so Shalini Kantayya's Catching the Sun comes by its new-frontier spirit — cheerleading for the dreamers and targeting naysayers — honestly. Though few moviegoers will find its assessment of the present state of solar merits a trip to cinemas, the response on video should be warmer for this slick, hopeful production.

Kantayya finds change-the-world types on two continents: In China, businessman “Wally” Jiang comes from a village that didn't have any electricity until he was 7; now his WesTech solar firm is doubling in size every year and intends to build a "Solar City" in Texas. In the U.S. the helmer focuses on Van Jones, who sees implementing renewable energy as a way to both solve environmental problems and transform America's poor communities with "moon shot"-like jobs programs.

Kantayya might have avoided confusion by being more clear about when her material was shot: Those who know how Jones' promising career as the President's green-jobs advisor was derailed by the right-wing media may be puzzled by that story's telling here.

Similarly, the doc never really creates a sense of passing time on the street-level front, where we see a Jones-endorsed program in Richmond, Calif., that trains the unemployed to install solar panels. Protagonists like Paul Muldow, a college-educated man in his forties, have no trouble earning our interest, nor do his younger classmates, but Sun isn't the best teller of their stories.

Catching the Sun offers a useful primer on the development of photovoltaics and on the space race-like competition between world powers today to be the country that deploys solar most profitably. Unfortunately, most U.S. lawmakers and pundits don't seem to know that race is being run — thanks to the influence of petro-plutocrats and those beholden to them. The film watches sadly as astroturfers Americans for Prosperity fight cap-and-trade measures. But even when looking at entrenched energy companies, it finds reasons for optimism — as when speaking to David Crane, whose NRG Energy (whose roots are in conventional electricity) has seen the light and is currently pushing to be America's foremost name in green energy.

Distributor: The Film Collaborative
Production company: 7th Empire Media
Director: Shalini Kantayya
Producers: Shalini Kantayya, Aarti Tandon, Cedric Troadec
Executive producers: Peter Glatzer, Adrian Grenier, Megan Gelstein, Jessica Brackman, Anna Getty, Kim Lund, Menno Van Wyck
Director of photography: Steve Acevedo
Editors: Michael Culyba, Shalini Kantayya, Tyler H. Walk
Composer: David Majzlin

Not rated, 73 minutes