“Design. Build. Transform.” That’s the credo of young architects Matthew Miller and Emily Pilloton, who head a yearlong high school program called Studio H in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. Those words, as this engaging documentary reveals, are more than a slogan. The film is about innovation inside and outside the classroom and the transformative power of good teaching.
Director Patrick Creadon tackled crossword-puzzle enthusiasts in “Wordplay” and the national debt in “I.O.U.S.A.” In Miller and Pilloton, partners in life and work, he’s found two strong protagonists to carry his film. Miller and Pilloton are idealists but they’re not above getting their hands dirty — literally. They mold clay, shovel dirt, and hammer nails alongside the 10 students enrolled in Studio H, a mash-up of theory and practicality that’s like a traditional shop class taught by R. Buckminster Fuller. When Chip Zullinger, the forward-thinking school superintendent who hired Miller and Pilloton, is forced to resign over conflicts with a school board that wants to gut the program, Miller and Pilloton waive their salaries in order to keep it afloat. The film shows the strain that living on grants and credit puts on both the project and their relationship.
“If You Build It” covers a lot of ground in under 90 minutes. Besides education politics and the interesting back stories of Miller and Pilloton, the film is a portrait of contemporary rural America. The high schoolers in Studio H, a mix of white and black, a few girls among mostly boys, smash many stereotypes about the American South. Most of their other classes are conducted online via laptops — even, inexplicably, gym class. Studio H, taught in a sprawling, hands-on workshop, offers the kids something different: the chance to put creativity to practical use. The kids are skeptical at first; but as the film takes us through the program’s entire year, we see them quietly gaining confidence and enjoying the work. Miller and Pilloton lead them through two smaller projects, including the design and construction of chicken coops, that yield amazing results. The finale is a project aimed to benefit the community as a whole: The kids and teachers design and build a structure that will house a farmer’s market which will bring revenue and jobs to the town.
If this blend of community service, innovative teaching, and creative approach to design and construction sounds idealistic, the film’s final scenes deliver enough stress and sweat to show that idealism takes hard work, too. “If You Build It” pointedly doesn’t include the rest of the famous line in its title. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t. But the pride that the students take in the finished project is permanent — and something that can’t be taught on a laptop.Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.