Film Reviews

Review: ‘Knock Down the House’

Hot Docs 2019

Courtesy of Netflix


Knock Down the House
(USA, 85 min.)
Dir. Rachel Lears
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

Get ready for the most inspiring, empowering, invigorating, motivating, and electrifying film of the season. Knock Down the House, which enjoyed an energetic Hot Docs debut after blowing the roof off Sundance earlier this year, is exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing call to action the left needs right now. It’s a story of four women who are mad as hell with the establishment and are not going to take it anymore. Director Rachel Lears (The Hand that Feeds) follows Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearingen, and some plucky upstart named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as they lead grassroots campaigns with hopes of dethroning long-running incumbents for the Democratic seat in the 2018 midterm elections. Driven by four great characters and an infectiously anti-establishment spirit, Knock Down the House harnesses the grassroots energy of the candidates’ campaigns and taps into an audiences’ desire for a better tomorrow.

The candidates are part of a greater movement in the USA that looks to shake up the political establishment following the election of Donald Trump and awaken Americans from their complacency with a broken system that allowed a clown like the Donald to be elected (or run) in the first place. The doc doesn’t wag fingers and it doesn’t assign blame. (Thankfully, there are no Bernie Bros frothing out the mouth to be found in this film.) But, like Michael Moore’s recent Fahrenheit 11/9, it acknowledges that Trump is merely the face of a bigger problem with deeper roots. What the film captures is a collective awakening and the effort to mobilize Americans towards change.

Lears observes her four subjects as they fuel their campaigns by opening the eyes of their fellow Americans and helping them recognize how many politicians in power, even Democrats, don’t reflect the average working class American. Again and again, the subjects show how their rivals fail to stand up for the needs of the communities they were elected to represent. Vilela, for example, tours her Nevada constituency and passionately advocates for basic rights like health care. The film follows her journey as she opens up about losing her daughter, Shalynne, to an embolism when the hospital denied her care because she lacked proof of insurance. Vilela channels her passion, rage, and love into the campaign to position herself as a working class mother who has been on food stamps and suffered great loss because of the system she aims to fix.

Similarly, Paula Jean Swearingen takes Lears on a tour around her West Virginia community to show the devastating consequences of resource extraction as she points out house after house where a neighbour got cancer. Bush, meanwhile, hits the pavement in St. Louis, Missouri, not far from the streets of Ferguson where she worked as a nurse when the authorities turned violent against protestors in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Lears finds great human stories in these candidates that embody the hunger for change.

Then there is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The star of the movement to knock down the house and rebuild America from the ground up, Ocasio-Cortez is a magnetic character charged with the energy and genuine passion one hopes to see in a candidate. Lears’ film inevitably narrows its focus on Ocasio-Cortez as she gets down in the trenches while taking on long-time representative Joe Crowley, who held the seat for 14 years without ever having to put up a campaign. People on the street tell AOC that she’s nuts for taking on the establishment, but the fearless ingénue grasps that she fits the bill as the ideal challenger to blindside him. As an unknown woman of colour, she personifies all that’s overlooked by the system.

Even though Lears devotes the bulk of the film to Ocasio-Cortez, Knock Down the House doesn’t short change the other candidates by casting them in supporting roles to AOC’s lead. The doc interweaves the four stories to convey commonalities in the candidates’ struggles. Lears draws out the injustices of the system and the perversions of the political machine that deter leaders from fighting for change. For example, Lears pays special attention to the role of campaign financing as the four contenders have indefatigable teams knocking on doors and hitting the phone lines to secure individual contributions, unlike their rivals who enjoy hefty PAC contributions that compromise their integrity. Knock Down the House inspires audiences to recognize the difference between a candidate who talks the talk and one who walks the walk.

As Lears goes into Ocasio-Cortez’s life, Knock Down the House lets audiences see firsthand how this scrappy young woman from the Bronx lives the life of a political outsider. She works as a waitress to pay the bills and resides in a cubbyhole of an apartment with her partner. Moreover, unlike her rival who doesn’t even live in the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez goes out on the streets to listen to her fellow Americans and relate to them on a basic level of human empathy.

The doc has its own arc comparable to A Star is Born in Ocasio-Cortez as she finds her groove. Where Lady Gaga’s Ally discovers the full power of her voice while belting out “Shallow” onstage, Ocasio-Cortez speaks truth to power in an energetic debate that provides the spark to ignite her campaign. Crowley can’t even be bothered to attend the debate and instead sends a surrogate, whose helplessly pathetic answers encapsulate the complacency AOC aims to expunge from the system. As AOC rises to her feet and mobilizes the crowd, Lears’ doc captures the exhilarating sense of possibility that occurs when the political system gives voters a candidate who understands and reflects their experiences. Even though the outcome of AOC’s big night is already well known,_ Knock Down the House_ builds to a nerve-wracking finale as AOC giddily awaits her results. Her reaction to the big news is sheer shock and euphoria as David trounces Goliath.

While Knock Down the House can be rough around the edges, this documentary illustrates the magic that happens when a filmmaker is in the right place at the right time with the right character. AOC is a great subject, a fiery renegade full of the hope, hunger, and optimism that progressives everywhere desperately need. It’s refreshing to see her so invested in her community when most politicians seem so detached. Her openness with Lears also fuels her cause as, like the other women, she gives voice to people who are disenfranchised by a stacked system. Her infectiously positive can-do spirit is the perfect antidote to these divisive times. It’s thrilling to watch a film that makes change seem possible.

Knock Down the House screens at Hot Docs on Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4.

It also launches on Netflix May 1 and opens at TIFF Lightbox on Monday, May 6.