(This review comes courtesy of our coverage of the Doc10 Film Festival at the Davis Theater in Chicago, Illinois. Keep a look out for continuing coverage, including reviews and interviews, all weekend.)
In fall 2016, director Rachel Lears had just become a mother and, in the wake of her new responsibilities, wondered if she was going to stray away from filmmaking. Then the presidential election happened. Work on her next project began one day later, aiming to buoy the efforts of progressive women in politics. It wasn’t long until she found the four Congress nominees that she’d follow: Cori Bush of Missouri; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia; and Amy Vilela of Nevada.
Bush, as it so happens, is located in the same community that lost Michael Brown to police brutality in mid 2014. Ocasio-Cortez, a third-generation Bronx resident, runs her campaign when she isn’t working her day job as a waitress. Swearengin runs her grassroots campaign out of the Appalachians where big industries have all but leveled her local economy to the ground and Vilela, whose daughter passed away because medical care couldn’t verify her insurance, continues to fight for single-payer healthcare.
Knock Down the House follows the four women from the inception of their campaigns to their primaries in mid-2018, and while its agenda is abundantly clear, it circumvents its propagandist pitfalls. How? Because it doesn’t feel the need to rebrand its intentions or make attempts to damage its opponents. Does its excess of content make for an uneven documentary? Undoubtedly so, but it’s also a crowd-pleaser that focuses on moving forward, not what sent us back in the first place.
Part of that mentality comes from its subjects; part of it stems from its energy. And while most films’ paces are only as good as their structures, Knock Down the House is curious in how the former helps distract from the latter. We learn of each of the women’s backgrounds, how their personal and professional lives converged into their campaigns. Robin Blotnick’s editing bobs and weaves between their personal and professional lives, refusing to stuff them into any gendered, ethnic, or social boxes.
Lears hasn’t made a technically striking film, but that’s far from the point. It works largely in part to its constant sense of motion—of feeling in the now and refusing to look back. There are no charts, expository texts, or cuts to archive footage. Even the title cards exist only to give a date and time before scooting away, making for a scrappy little movie that often feels as truthful as those it depicts. This is a droll piece, not a polished one.
Does its excess of content make for an uneven documentary? Undoubtedly so, but it’s also a crowd-pleaser that focuses on moving forward, not what sent us back in the first place.
It can be frustrating, then, for the film to have such an uneven approach to its four women. Knock Down the House is far more involved in Ocasio-Cortez than Bush, Swearengin, or Vilela to the point where Lears’s focus is unclear. The film opens with her; the film ends with her. It looks at her upbringing, personal life, and relationships. The film is a joy to watch during her scenes, making the other women’s segments too detached.
Rather than get the undeniable humanism of AOC’s film, the three other women are defined by their surroundings or their most recent traumas. Bush gets the closest to full humanization thanks to her charisma and wit. The movie only gives audiences a general idea of who Swearegin and Vilela are as people, and they’re pretty stereotypical at points (kind! altruistic! determined!).
A select combination of the four women may cross paths in what feels like the film’s attempt to pass the baton between them, but this device is too inconsistent to truly work. “The issue is that it takes 100 of us for just one to win,” Ocasio-Cortez tells Swearegin over the phone. That rings true on a pragmatic level, but it’s a shame Knock Down the House doesn’t really mend its pieces to the whole it frames itself as. It feels like its more balanced intentions were scrapped in favor of Ocasio-Cortez’s eventual rise to power.
Despite this, Lears manages to wring out an engaging documentary that paints Ocasio-Cortez as a fitting face to the Democratic Socialist movement. Her pluck, her refusal to take big help, her priceless enthusiasm—it’s all so infectious. Inspirational, even. And that’s something to appreciate.