Following its premiere at the True/False Film Festival in February, Approaching the Elephant screens on Sunday at BAMcinemaFest in New York. For Calum Marsh, writing in the Voice, it’s one of the “standouts among the standouts…. At the Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, New Jersey, the children do more or less as they please, while the teachers flail in private agony as they learn the ropes of education. Madness? Perhaps, but also a social experiment worthy of study, and it is to rather extraordinary effect in Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature.”
“Elephant plays as a litmus test,” suggests Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound: “where one viewer will see a ringing endorsement of the flawed-but-vital free-school model, another will see a failed and even irresponsible Utopian project, Lord of the Flies in a New Jersey church basement. (‘Is this working?’ [teacher Alex] Khost wonders aloud. ‘We probably won’t know for 20 years.’) The children’s personalities come across eloquently, particularly in the dramatic crux of the movie, when the class becomes in thrall to one rambunctious, charismatic bully, whose unkempt mane, along with the film’s black-and-white photography, puts one in mind of Truffaut’s Wild Child.”
“Approaching the Elephant‘s adolescents are smarter than 80% of the regulars at my local,” grants Filmmaker‘s Vadim Rizov, “but intelligence won’t save them; this is a democracy in inaction…. The film works as a parodic demonstration of a nascent democracy, as a portrait of feckless youth, and a study in how charismatic jerks abuse their leeway; it’s a multivalent winner, all the better for its deliberate, focused confinement to one space.”
“As various personalities assert themselves—charismatic Lucy takes charge of everything, while bully Jiovanni doesn’t play well with others—the ratio of chaos-to-learning seems alarmingly high,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club. “Approaching the Elephant clearly has applications that extend beyond the classroom. But it’s gripping first and foremost as a study of a nascent group dynamic… This is social interaction in its purest form.”
Writing for Paste, Tim Grierson notes that “just as we’re about to write off Teddy McArdle Free School and Alex, something remarkable happens. It’s best not to reveal too much, but suffice it to say that while the school’s democratic system remains problematic throughout, Alex’s insistence in treating his pupils like adults starts to reap unexpected dividends. Wilder doesn’t conduct traditional interviews with her subjects, preferring a direct-cinema approach in which she observes activities from the sidelines, letting individuals’ actions speak for themselves. Her technique has its gradual rewards as well: What we eventually observe is the forging of a deep relationship between Alex and his students—a relationship in which he has as much riding as they do.”
“Aptly compared to the work of master documentarian Frederick Wiseman as well as Lord of the Flies, Wilder’s movie is also a remarkable deadpan comedy about the travails of classroom dynamics,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn.
Update, 6/19: Henry Stewart talks with Wilder for Brooklyn Magazine.
Update, 6/20: BAM‘s posted a quick chat with Wilder.
Update, 6/26: “Code Black, Ryan McGarry’s documentary about doctors in training at Los Angeles County Hospital, and my film Approaching the Elephant both have something to say about anarchy and institutions.” Wilder elaborates at the Talkhouse Film.