'Pahokee': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Pahokee-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Standard fare.

Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan’s feature documentary celebrates the high school students and beleaguered residents of a distressed Florida town.

It’s not easy living at the end of nowhere, in this case, Pahokee, a small agricultural town of 6,000 on the shores of Florida’s famed Lake Okeechobee. Young people from Pahokee with any sort of talent, resources or motivation all seem to have one primary goal: to get out. The four teens at the center of Pahokee are similar to high schoolers pretty much anywhere in the U.S., except maybe a bit more eager for an opportunity to escape the economic hardships of their hometown. In a familiar arc that devotedly delves into their final year at Pahokee High School, Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan’s debut captures their youthful ambitions with abundant energy and variable insight.

Pahokee in recent years has struggled to generate enough work to sustain the population, many of whom work in the sugar cane or produce fields and processing facilities. Although the town may not have a lot of jobs to offer, Pahokee High School displays an infectious abundance of school spirit that involves students, parents and staff in support of the Blue Devils football team and a crammed calendar of social events.

Jocabed Martinez is the only one among the students profiled with sufficiently good grades to hope for substantial academic scholarship support. After emigrating from Mexico to Florida with her family as a child, she’s watched her parents work their way up from the crop fields to establishing their own business, a roadside taco stand where she works the cash register after school. By contrast, football team co-captain BJ Crawford has for many years focused on sports in order to develop the skills and leadership qualities to compete for a university athletic scholarship. His two college-educated parents are super-supportive and encourage him to keep up with his classes as well as his team responsibilities.

With only a decent academic record and a spot on the cheerleading squad rather than a varsity team, Na’Kerria Nelson faces greater challenges to find a suitable fit for higher education. However, she’s a determined young woman who works a part-time job in addition to school and despite a lack of close family, she benefits from a supportive circle of friends. With the possible exception of Junior Walker, the single father of a toddler daughter, these students are all pushing hard to make senior year their best yet. 

In a way, Junior’s story may be the most compelling of the group, as he attempts to provide for his daughter and still manage to graduate from school. As the lead drummer for the marching band, he’s a talented percussionist, but it’s not really a marketable skill and his prospects appear increasingly perilous as the film progresses. For Junior, the consequences of failure are pretty clear if he isn’t able to support his child. With the other subjects, though, the filmmakers don’t adequately demonstrate the stakes that they’re facing, and this lack of clarity makes the students' ambitions seem all the more generic, rather than specific to their unique circumstances.

Structural issues with pacing and scene selection are evident in three long, energetic segments profiling the school's progression in the state football championships. At least a couple of major social events also go down during the course of the film, but there are comparatively infrequent depictions of students participating in classes or actually studying, even though academic achievement is obviously a principal factor in their college admission strategies.

Further miscalculations emerge when the filmmakers skip the opportunity to thoroughly pursue a major development with the football team’s fortunes that could significantly impact both BJ and Na’Kerria, but after introducing the issue they drop it with little additional explanation. They also neglect to explore another incident involving a shooting in broad daylight at a Pahokee park that shocks residents, pointing to potentially shaky editorial considerations.

Still, these missteps don’t diminish the reality that these are all kids with impressive motivation and great potential. For anyone who’s had to struggle to escape difficult situations, the self-reliance and perseverance these teens require to improve their lives will seem quite familiar and reassuringly realistic. Pahokee is also a worthwhile reminder for those who haven’t faced similar challenges that things rarely come easy for those from modest circumstances.

Production companies: Otis Lucas, Genuine Article Pictures, Topic Studios
Directors: Ivete Lucas, Patrick Bresnan
Producers: Ivete Lucas, Patrick Bresnan, Maida Lynn
Executive producer: Linda Dodwell
Director of photography: Patrick Bresnan
Editor: Ivete Lucas
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

112 minutes