If You Build It: Film Review

The enjoyable doc captures youthful idealism but isn't rose-tinted.

Patrick Creadon's documentary follows an ambitious school project in North Carolina.

Designers and architects have long been vulnerable to the belief that their work will improve users' daily lives. In If You Build It, Patrick Creadon introduces two young professionals who make that objective more plausible by letting the users themselves be designers. Making this intriguing project more engaging is the fact that it's targeted at rural high-schoolers with no artistic background; Creadon's doc benefits substantially from these kids, resulting in a film with modest commercial appeal that should have a healthy video afterlife with activism-minded students in college and graduate programs.

Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller are a romantic couple whose working partnership brings them to Bertie County, North Carolina -- hired by an open-minded administrator to start a new high school program they call Studio H. Resembling a super-powered shop class, the program not only teaches construction skills like welding, but familiarizes students with the full design cycle. After studying Buckminster Fuller and prototyping their own avant-garde chicken coops, they set out on a months-long plan to design and build a place for townsfolk to run a new farmers' market.

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Though the project suffers potentially fatal setbacks (questionable school board decisions leave Miller and Pilloton without a salary, forcing them to work a year for free), Creadon chooses not to milk dramas in reality-TV fashion. Though we witness a couple of grumpy moments in and out of the workshop, the overall focus is on the pleasure -- ours and the kids' -- of finding competence and talent where one mightn't expect it. Quiet Kerron discovers a knack for computer-aided drafting; Jamesha, who balks at getting her hands dirty from the start, becomes the group's videographer. Farm kids who admit to hating school find a sense of common cause in a project so clearly relevant to their community. (In a decaying town where a new outpost of Domino's Pizza represents a major shift in unemployment numbers, anything that might nurture local entrepreneurism is a godsend.)

At the film's outset, Pilloton is seen describing the pair's plans in the kind of TED Talk that so often introduces utopian projects that are never heard from again. Here, Creadon watches what is and isn't accomplished by believers who put their lives on hold for others' sake.

Production Company: Story Into Action

Director: Patrick Creadon

Producers: Christine O'Malley, Neal Baer

Director of photography: George Desort

Music: Peter Golub

Editor: Nick Andert, Daniel J. Clark, Doug Blush

No rating, 85 minutes