'Promise' as much about makers as subjects

| Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

For 13 years, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson shot video of their son, Idris, and his friend, Seun. Both kids lived in Brooklyn, the products of middle-class black families, and they found themselves with a unique opportunity. As kindergartners, both were accepted into the Dalton School, an Ivy League farm team on the Upper East Side whose alumni include Wallace Shawn, Claire Danes, Anderson Cooper and many other notables.

“American Promise” is the result of the hundreds of hours of footage. The documentary is unwieldy, unfocused and frustrating at times, but the movie is also, somehow, dazzling. The fact that the pair pulls off the nearly 2 12-hour run time without making the audience tire of the subjects is a feat itself.

Dalton seems like a good fit for the boys, initially. The two love school and their classmates, although there are inklings of outsider feelings. As years go by, the children begin to feel they belong neither at Dalton nor in their neighborhood, where other kids tell Idris he talks “like a white boy.”

To make matters worse, both are having a hard time academically. Or are they? At one point, Michele and Joe take exception to the fact that Seun and Idris are singled out for private tutoring. Seun, who is diagnosed with dyslexia during the film, could use the extra help, but Idris's parents seem to think their son is being unfairly targeted. Joe marvels at how Dalton seems to think their son is a challenging pupil. “They don't know him,” the father states matter-of-factly. And yet, Joe and Michele are exceptionally harsh helicopter parents, whose demeanor suggests they think their son is indeed difficult.

These bits of hypocrisy turn the movie into an engrossing portrait of modern parenting.

To their credit, the filmmakers lay bare their foibles, as well as their bickering over parenting techniques. And while the access they get is impressive, the little domestic moments and private conversations mean so much more. “American Promise” may not fully document or explain how race affects education, but it does offer plenty to ponder.

Stephanie Merry writes for the Washington Post.

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