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'American Promise' review: Kids all right, parents not

Idris and Seun in POV's

Idris and Seun in POV's "American Promise," airing on Feb. 3, 2014. Credit: Michele Stephenson

THE DOCUMENTARY "American Promise" on "POV"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 10 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The education of two African-American boys at one of New York's most exclusive private schools.

MY SAY When filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson decided to make a documentary about the education of their son Idris and his buddy Suen a dozen years ago, there were obvious questions about whether the boys could flourish in an alien environment -- namely, Manhattan's Dalton School, a bastion of white wealth and privilege. Idris and Suen would be among the few black kids there. They'd be solidly middle class, among a highly entitled student body.

Brewster and Stephenson would also be the ones with the camera following Idris and Suen around for 12 years.

There are so many things wrong with "American Promise" that they are difficult to catalog, but among them is a solid sense that the parent/filmmakers began their project with its outcome in mind. Certainly, there is much that rings true about the day-to-day, and year-to-year, struggles of the families involved, including Suen's dyslexia and Idris' undiagnosed (until late in the game) attention deficit disorder. Familiar to many will be the often Sisyphean effort to get overscheduled children to do homework when they're already exhausted by the fact of being adolescent. There are also some tragedies in the story that no one could foresee, and these give the film a dimensionality that's often missing, despite Brewster and Stephenson's willingness to expose themselves as imperfect parents, and often less-than-charming people.

But the story is short on moments of revelatory truth. When Brewster and Stephenson film a group of black parents conferring about their kids' progress, race is the presumed cause of every problem. OK, but the responsibility of documentary makers, even those doubling as concerned parents, is to probe. Only once is a Dalton administrator confronted with the issue at the heart of the film, and she concedes that while black males statistically do worse at Dalton, she can't say exactly why. Neither can the filmmakers, except by making assumptions, which, while very possibly true, were in their hearts at least 12 years ago.

The two young principals are the most likable part of the film, and the most illuminating: When 13-year-old Idris explains that he doesn't want to go to any more bar mitzvahs because the girls won't dance with him, it says all that needs to be said, and provides the kind of electricity "American Promise" mostly fails to deliver.

BOTTOM LINE A misbegotten project, as well as a missed opportunity.



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