‘Pahokee’ Feels Like an American Landmark

Doc observes the lives of Florida high school students with intimate yet epic scope

7 mins read

(USA, 112 min.)
Dir. Patrick Bresnan, Ivete Lucas

Every now and then comes a documentary that feels like an American landmark. Pahokee is one of those films. This outstanding documentary from Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas takes audiences into the daily lives of four Florida students—Junior, Jocabed, Kerria, and BJ—during their final year at Pahokee High School. Pahokee recalls the best of Fred Wiseman with its power for observation as directors Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas chronicle these four students as they strive for hopeful futures in a tightly knit impoverished Florida community. The film is at once potently intimate and breathtaking in scope.

Kerria longs to be homecoming queen and hopes to be crowned before going off to community college. BJ, a star football player, has numerous prospects to keep him on the field in college before maybe making it to the NFL. Jocabed, meanwhile, works tirelessly at her family’s carnita truck while excelling as one of the best in her class. Junior, finally, is a star player in the marching band who devotes himself to his young daughter between football games and classes. They’re all bright teens working their best on their respective paths. The fly-on-the-wall glimpse at these students’ lives speaks to the experiences of many Black and Latino youths as they consider their futures.

This approach brilliantly capture the world of Pahokee High School at levels both micro and macro. The filmmakers select appropriate case studies in the four students to exemplify the character of the Florida town as they embed themselves within Pahokee. The families of Pahokee are generally quite poor—and Bresnan and Lucas inform viewers not through talking heads but through astutely observing the world in which the students live. The camera takes in the wood panelling of their modest homes and the tireless work ethic of the kids and their families. In their work at school, in their extracurricular activities, and their family life, Pahokee delivers a refreshing corrective to the negative images of minority groups in America.

The cinematography by Bresnan is ever-moving and ever-present, observing the subtle nuances that mould young minds into leaders of tomorrow. Its ability to permeate the students’ lives takes in the dynamics of race, class, and gender that shape the diverse experiences one sees throughout the school. Similarly, the footage speaks to America at this moment without overtly politicizing it. The film is refreshingly absent of “make America great again” theatrics while devoting its time and energy to a town that is neglected by the establishment, but makes gains thanks to the resilience of family and community.

Pahokee bides its time, considering the students’ lives in elongated sequences that thrust a viewer into their world. In between energetic scenes at football games—a rallying point for the community—the film lets audiences feel the heat of the food truck with Jocabed as she processes orders on the register and hops beside her parents’ on the grill, whipping up tacos and prepping meals for customer orders and the family dinner in one swoop. Jocabed’s story arguably emerges as the heart of the film, although Bresnan and Lucas favour the four students’ stories with equal measure. She confesses her frustration about moving to America from Mexico and leaving behind her grandparents, friends, and extended family. However, while joining Jocabed at the family table and listening to their stories while members dash off to fulfill customer orders, the film sees an honest portrait of a working class immigrant family in which the parents devote themselves wholly to their child’s future. This struggle is not lost on Jocabed as she encourages her class to bring out the best in their community regardless of the paths they take.

The film is not all moments of heartfelt inspiration, though. This community sees ample pain. The centrepiece of Pahokee is an extraordinary sequence that captures the grim reality in which many students like the four subjects go to school daily. But the presentation of the scene makes it feel as ordinary as one of the football matches the precede it. Bresnan and Lucas take their cameras to the community’s Easter egg hunt and observe the kids of Pahokee as they scramble for coloured eggs. Then, amidst the joy and laughter, the camera swivels with a frenzy as gunshots crack from afar. What follows is a moment of disorienting chaos as people hit the ground, duck under cars, and search frantically for their kids. Without missing a beat, Bresnan’s camera sees the community hold strong as it rallies together amidst an act of senseless violence.

Bresnan and Lucas receive laudable access to the lives of the students, as well as their school and greater community. Particularly for a film with so many young, energetic, and eager participants, Pahokee maintains a remarkable proximity subjects. Rarely, if never, do they address the camera, but the lens holds close by them to capture the tears of joy and heartache that roll throughout the final year. Pahokee captures the students’ lives authentically, observing struggles as well as moments of love.

Pahokee is now streaming through the Paradise Theatre’s virtual cinema.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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