leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Made for HBO, this dispassionate documentary is a bitter chronicle of grinding poverty and illiteracy passed down from one generation to the next. Laura Lee Wallace, 62 "Lalee" to her family has lived her life in the West Tallahatchie region of Mississippi, where cotton has been king for generations and most people her age started picking it when they children. Lalee never learned to read, and most of her children (she had 11; eight are still living) are functionally illiterate. Of Lalee's 38 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, many live at least part-time in her battered trailer, without electricity or running water. She manages to feed them on her monthly disability check; her secret is spaghetti with a scattering of baloney for protein. Meanwhile, school superintendent Reggie Barnes is trying to shape up the failing West Tallahatchie school system, but finds himself trapped in a vicious catch-22. Even if his teachers can break the cycle of intergenerational illiteracy and graduate students with job skills, there are no jobs for them in the area, and they're too poor to leave. But without an educated workforce and a decent school system, luring new businesses into the region is all but impossible. Lalee, meanwhile, faces an uphill battle getting her charges to school. Filmmakers Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickson (longtime associates of pioneering documentarians Albert and David Maysles) focus on her efforts to keep one "great-grand" Gregory, nicknamed "Redman," whom Lalee enrolls in kindergarten and two "grands" Antonio and Cassandra, respectively called "Main" and "Granny," in school. Main, already sullen and difficult, is in first grade, while Granny, a bright girl with tired, wary eyes, has made it to sixth but is starting to fail: Housework and child care are taking a toll on her studies. Granny's efforts to continue her education and Barnes's struggle to get Granny's school off academic probation give the documentary its dramatic shape. Froemke and Dickson's film opens a window onto rural poverty so dire it's almost inconceivable that it exists in 21st-century America. On the downside, their focus on the local school system frees the filmmakers from having to address the role chaotic, female-headed households teeming with fatherless children plays in this systemic impoverishment. But it's hard not to admire Lalee's dogged determination to keep trying to improve the lives of her offspring, no matter how many times she fails.