'Us Kids': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
An empathetic portrait of kids who kept going long after most of the media moved on.

Kim A. Snyder follows 'Newtown' with another school-shooting doc, tracking activism sparked by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy.

Moving quickly past the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school and the outcry that led many to hope things would be different this time, Kim A. Snyder's Us Kids focuses on the still-churning months following the media frenzy: a period in which newly minted student activists tried to cope with national attention and, more importantly, channel energy into a tour of events designed to steer the 2018 midterms toward candidates who weren't in the NRA's back pocket.

Understanding that both surviving a shooting and sudden fame take a psychological toll, the film is a compassionate portrait eager to let its subjects speak for themselves. If it could somehow find its way to that chunk of America that swallowed right-wing propaganda about "crisis actors" and the like, it would surely change some minds, if not votes. But that's a big if, and the doc's main function will likely be to reassure those who already admire these young people and the protests they've mounted. If it leaves us more hopeful about those kids' mental health than about the gun debate, that's hardly surprising.

Americans for whom all recent mass murders blend into one immense, sanity-defying horror may want to refresh their memories elsewhere. Us Kids assumes familiarity with both the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre and the surprisingly strong response of students who survived it. Beyond a clip from the instantly famous speech in which Emma Gonzalez called Washington out for "BS," it replays little of what people will remember from media coverage of the students' response. Instead, it emphasizes what the students thought of that coverage. Gonzalez bitterly notes that "I had a five-fucking-hour interview with 60 Minutes," in which she said really smart things, only to see the program use a comparatively meaningless clip in which she teared up.

While others express their own reservations, sometimes wishing they'd understood the media ecosystem better before diving in, we see that, in some respects, social media saved them. It connected them with people in far-off communities, like Chicago's South Side, where gun violence was part of the landscape, and facilitated quick support for a grand political statement. The film flirts with sentimentality in its recap of that event, the March for Our Lives; there's certainly enough drama in what happened onstage, without an inspirational ballad as accompaniment.

The doc all but ignores the role supportive adults played in making that day happen, and does the same with the next phase, a campaign in which students bussed cross-country, holding rallies wherever they found vulnerable politicians taking campaign dollars from the NRA. Perhaps in response to conspiracy buffs who thought the entire event was constructed by professional anti-gun activists, Snyder spends her time showing kids combing through statistics, making endless phone calls, and talking to the public. But a more comprehensive look at how this all came together would be welcome, and would disarm those spreading disinformation.

The film's highlight on this topic comes in scenes where students, touring through hostile territory, calmly leave their hotels to talk with those protesting their presence. Cameron Kasky, told by a protester that he's being used by adults with ulterior motives, gives a persuasive rebuttal; interactions that leave gun-toting men admitting, "you're not like they show you on TV."

Meanwhile, Snyder balances the film's sympathy for David Hogg, who brought out the worst in the right-wing bullshitosphere, with attention paid to less famous participants in this gun-control campaign: Bria Smith, a Milwaukee resident who joined the tour to address broader gun violence in communities of color; and Sam Fuentes, who was actually struck by a bullet in the Parkland shooting. Struggling with PTSD, Fuentes finds a kindred spirit in Alex Dworet, brother of the friend she lost that day, Nicholas Dworet.

Snyder spends a lot of time with the two new friends, fleshing out her look at the emotional price activists paid for their travels and endless appearances. The jury's still out on whether the sacrifices were worth it: A shocking increase in youth voting sent some of the group's targets, like NRA-backed Congressperson Mia Love, packing. (CNN immediately hired her, which must be slightly confusing to those painting the network as a liberal-propaganda operation.) And Florida's legislature enacted its first new gun restriction (albeit a mixed-bag one) in thirty years. But students who named their group "Never Again" have had to spend the last two years acknowledging Yes, Again; and again; and again. Which of course is not to say they've failed, or that they don't deserve praise. Thoughts and prayers aren't worth the breath used to mutter them — certainly not compared to a kid with a bullhorn and a list of a legislator's campaign contributions.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (US Documentary Competition)
Production company: K.A. Snyder Productions, Cuomo Cole Productions, Hard Working Movies
Director: Kim A. Snyder
Producers: Kim A. Snyder, Maria Cuomo Cole, Lori Cheatle
Director of photography: Derek Wiesehahn
Editor: Leigh Johnson
Composers: Fil Eisler, Brian Reitzell
Sales: Endeavor Content

99 minutes