'No Small Matter': Film Review

NO SMALL MATTER- Publicity still - H 2020
Steph Strauss
Persuasive and deeply relevant to today's racial justice movement.
6/26/2020

Exec producer Alfre Woodard narrates a look at the importance of early-childhood education.

For those who've struggled in recent weeks to move protest-spurred debates beyond just police violence, a new education doc called No Small Matter may be a godsend, doing a large chunk of that work in a friendly, non-confrontational fashion.

It doesn't set itself up as a look at slavery's legacy: Co-directors Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel rarely speak specifically of racial inequities, understanding that America's current, destructive strain of capitalism has made responsible childrearing nearly impossible for poor (and many not-so-poor) people of all races. But a thinking viewer can't help but see the connections between this film's accessible, engaging science/sociology lessons and today's ever-louder pleas for the kind of structural reform proposed by movements like Black Lives Matter. While many of the points the film makes about early brain development will be old news to most viewers, the doc's fortuitous timing makes this topic look like one of the most urgent parts of any meaningful campaign against inequality.

The film's desire to make brain science unintimidating is evident from its opening scenes, as narrator (and EP) Alfre Woodard announces "the point is, beginnings matter": She asks viewers if they'd expect success from an athlete who sat out the first chunk of a game or a comedian who delivered punchlines without setting them up. Those analogies are only partly appropriate, though, as the film will make clear: A child who is deprived of enriching activity in her preschool years isn't only lacking the things she would have learned. By the point she does enter school, even the way her brain has physically developed will make learning harder than it is for fellow students.

Scientists explain how they've learned what astounding code-breaking machines infant brains are, and how the amount of stimulation streaming into them in the first few years is crucial. This isn't about playing Mozart in the crib or putting a bilingual app on an iPad — it's largely just about engaged, affectionate interaction with adults. ("Social interaction is brain food," we're told.) And it's hard for parents to deliver that if they're working multiple jobs.

Without saying anything very likely to trigger Right-leaning viewers, the film easily draws a line between stagnant wages, rising costs and domestic desperation. A series of mothers, all of whom have to work outside the home, describe how hard it is to pay for childcare; onscreen titles stun us with the news that, in 28 states, the cost of infant care — even pretty crummy care — is higher than the cost of public college.

The movie's midsection explores some of the less-known ways that paying insufficient attention to infants and toddlers can cripple them as adults — from deficiencies in executive function to an inability to process stress, not to mention mere readiness for academics: If a typical higher-income kid enters kindergarten performing at a level two years beyond that of his low-income counterpart, how can we be surprised that the latter is far less likely to finish high school, with all the economic, social and criminal risks that implies? Pennsylvania Department of Corrections official John Wetzel sums it up: "True criminal justice reform is investing in early childhood education." (Well, that and prosecuting violent cops as if they were gang-bangers. And tossing out union leaders who act like mob bosses. And...)

Threaded between all these daunting messages is a vision of how things can be: Rachel Giannini is one of a few instantly lovable teachers we meet who work in the kind of preschool parents must dream of. Scenes of warm, high-energy play-as-teaching bear no resemblance to the mere babysitting one might expect at a preschool. We've spent most of the movie with her when we learn that Giannini, like her fellow teachers, has to work a second job just to be able to live on what early-ed teachers get paid. U.S. spending on early-childhood ed accounts for just 3% of overall education spending, we're told. And yet we're spending billions to imprison countless people who've been all but set up to fail. No Small Matter finds many persuasive ways to suggest America should reexamine its priorities.

Production companies: Kindling Group, Siskel Jacobs Productions
Distributor: Abramorama (Available Friday, June 26, on demand)
Directors: Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs, Jon Siskel
Producers: Rachel Pikelny, Laura Fallsgraff
Executive producer: Alfre Woodard
Director of photography:
Editors: John Farbrother, Miranda Yousef
Composer: Paul Brill

74 minutes