'For Ahkeem': Film Review | Berlin 2017

A quietly impactful documentary with the texture of a narrative feature.

An intimate coming-of-age portrait of a black teenager in a marginalized St. Louis neighborhood, unfolding against the backdrop of the 2014 Ferguson uprising.

In For Ahkeem, nonfiction filmmakers Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest follow 17-year-old Daje Shelton for more than two years, beginning when she's ordered by a Missouri judge to complete her education in a court-supervised alternative high school as a result of disciplinary infractions. By keeping a tight focus on the subject as she navigates senior year, early motherhood and the crushing stigma of negative expectations, the film assembles a poignant snapshot of black struggle that humanizes a range of social issues through the first-hand experiences of one young woman.

"Either you make it for me or you don't make it at all," says Judge Jimmie Edwards, who started the Innovative Concept Academy in a bid to break the school-to-prison pipeline running through his St. Louis courtroom and keep troubled teens out of the criminal-justice system.

Daje's transgressions are never detailed beyond a vague history of rebelliousness and getting into fights. But in her own words, she describes how first being suspended in kindergarten over a minor offense established a pattern shared by many African-American students who acquire the permanent label of "bad kids." While contextual information is kept to a minimum, we learn that black students in Missouri have a higher percentage of school suspensions and expulsions than any state in America.

Neither a model student nor a hopeless case, Daje at first seems primarily motivated by her mother, who speaks from experience about the consequences of being expelled from high school. She wants her daughter to get out of their rundown house and their tough, poverty-line St. Louis neighborhood to build a better life. The teachers and staff at ICA couch their lessons in empathy for the kids, many of them having come from similar backgrounds. Even the lunch lady is an inspirational figure. "Hold your head up and walk the walk of a queen," she instructs Daje while serving up fruit. "We gonna make it!"

But even while acknowledging that her future hangs in the balance, Daje struggles to focus on her schoolwork, getting hauled into the principal's office for causing disruptions in class. Her boyfriend Antonio drops out of school, planning on looking for construction work, and the discovery that Daje is pregnant with their son prompts apprehensive reflections on a community in which boys are frequently dead by 15 or 16.

Indeed, the killing of a 16-year-old student at the school takes a toll on morale early on. And the start of Daje's senior year coincides with the fatal shooting by a police officer of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr. in nearby Ferguson in August 2014. The violent aftershocks amplify questions about the grim odds facing African-American youth in an environment of gun violence, crime, institutionalized racism and economic insecurity.

Daje's voiceovers punctuate the key events like diary entries, making the film feel more personal than observational. Editor Lily Frances Henderson instills an engaging, unforced flow as moments of triumph and joy are captured, or others of anxiety and hopelessness, without overstating either the highs or the lows. Noah Bennett Cunningham's gentle score and Nicholas Weissman's discreetly probing handheld camerawork contribute significantly to the captivating intimacy.

While For Ahkeem moves with quiet suspense toward the ICA senior-year graduation, the film poses questions that continue to resonate beyond that event. The filmmakers make no claim that Daje — or by extension, countless young black Americans like her — will manage to rise above a life of overwhelming difficulty. But they get us invested in her future, and that of her infant son who gives the film its title, conveying an affecting sense in the end that she has found a resilient spirit to carry her forward.

Production companies: Last Resort Doc, ITVS
Directors: Jeremy S. Levine, Landon Van Soest
Producers: Nicholas Weissman, Iyabo Boyd
Executive producer: Jeff Truesdell, Sally Jo Fifer
Director of photography: Nicholas Weissman
Music: Noah Bennett Cunningham
Editor: Lily Frances Henderson

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: Submarine/Wide House

90 minutes