The phrase “Ken Burns documentary” generally implies BIG. Burns is best known as the maker of epic, multi-part films on broad subjects such as the Civil War, the Dust Bowl, baseball, and jazz. He has a reputation for doing extensive historical research, making resourceful use of archival images, and carefully selecting interviewees and soundtracks.
So Burns’s new PBS film, “The Address,” is a bit off-brand. It’s a tightly focused piece of cinema verite that’s as much about a contemporary school for learning-challenged boys as it is about the title, which refers to the Gettysburg Address. At 84 minutes, and narrated by seven of the students, the film is an often touching, sometimes dull, and always well-intentioned portrait of struggling kids and committed teachers.
The Greenwood School is located in Putney, Vt., not far from Burns’s home in Walpole, N.H. Every year, the school asks its 50 students, ages 11 to 17, to try to memorize the Gettysburg Address. The kids, who have what the headmaster calls “complex learning profiles” including diagnoses such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ADHD, spend months practicing, not only to memorize the text but also to pronounce the words correctly. Finally, they take the stage at a recitation event in front of their families and friends. Burns has served as a judge during the event, which is what inspired him to look more closely at the school.
Generally, the boys have landed at Greenwood after unsuccessful periods at other schools. Because of their learning challenges, they were marginalized and sometimes bullied for being different. “The Address” tries to link their ostracism to the equality message of President Lincoln’s speech, and we are given a few minutes of Civil War history along the way. But really, the documentary is all about the kids as they attend classes and meet with teachers. Ultimately, it is Burns’s heartfelt tribute to the Greenwood School more than anything more thematic.
It is lovely indeed to watch the teachers cultivate trust with their students throughout the film, reminding the kids over and over that it’s all right to be different. The sweet scenes just keep coming at you: Music teacher Derrik Jordan tells a student about the aphorism, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Academic dean Bruce Rosow tells us movingly about the boys’ “courage.” Ian, a 14-year-old student, describes feeling worthless before he arrived at Greenwood, “a place where you can regain that state of ‘I belong somewhere.’ ” You can’t help but feel how hard it must be for these kids in a world overrun by conformity, and how liberating it must be for them to finally deal with understanding teachers.
The film is watered down a bit with too much random footage of the boys. We see them waking up, we see them goofing around, we see them playing music — all of which is nice but, ultimately, uninteresting. I suspect Burns is giving us these random moments to give the film a sense of intimacy, which works to some extent. But the classroom footage, as the kids work to memorize and articulate the Address, contains far more compelling moments. That’s when we get to see up close what they and their loyal teachers are up against.