" The Heavenly Father’s really given you a gift for science! "
— Trey Parker, Orgazmo

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

Sponsored links

In the title to this documentary about an unorthodox shop class in North Carolina, the word “you” should be emphasized. “If you build it...” then it will mean something to you, beyond the thing itself.

Teachers, Students, and Staff

The film follows two teachers and their ten pupils in Bertie County, North Carolina. Matt and Emily are design professionals who have been invited to implement their “Studio H” idea: to improve shop class by including design education, prototyping, and community involvement. They split the yearlong course into 3 phases, each more ambitious than the last. They intend that the third project will be something that will genuinely benefit the entire community.

Design and prototyping are part of the process
Design and prototyping are part of the process

The class projects start small, with a “cornhole” game, seen frequently at pubs, built of sloping plywood boxes with a hole in them. Four corn bags are tossed from one to the other for points. Next they design and build chicken coops inspired by verbs like “to twist” and “to fold.” Their final project is an ambitious outdoor building that the film treats as a surprise, so I won’t mention it here.

The first conflict in the film is that “Dr. Z.,” the superintendent who had invited Matt and Emily, loses his job early in the semester. (An Internet search shows that he took a superintendent job here in Denver, and was forced out earlier this year over disagreements about the power of his office.) As part of the ensuing budget fallout, Matt and Emily are allowed to continue Studio H, but only after they give up their $40,000-a-year salaries. They push on, teaching their students with hands-on design, prototyping, and building.

One student is Jamesha, who says she’s not really into getting dirty. She’s put off by the dung-burning exercise in a water filtration project on day one. At the other end of the spectrum is Stevie, who would rather work with animals than just about anything else. I’ve forgotten the name of the quiet, observant kid, and the hard worker, and the others in the group. In class there is a fairly even split between black and white, heavy and slim. Boys seem to outnumber the girls. Most are 16, and most drive pickup trucks to the studio space that is their classroom.

Unasked Questions

There was a risk that Matt and Emily — and by extension the film — would come across as arrogant. The storyline could have been “Two educated urban ‘gurus’ come show the rural folk how to do shop class right.” But Emily says she’s very conscious of the risk and insists that she wants to be part of the community, not its dictator. The fact that they sacrifice their salaries to keep the class going is a strong gesture, too.

... Speaking of educator salaries, did you know that some high schoolers now learn physical education in front of computers? A brief shot in the documentary shows students attending classes in Spanish, Pre-calculus, and P.E. (!) in front of computer screens. The documentary mentions that the school district has a $30 million budget, and suggests that it’s being squandered. Whether that’s true or not, I can’t say; I’m just a film critic from another state. But I was shocked to see kids earning high school credits without any adult — nor even human — supervision.

I did have the feeling that the film was leaving some things unsaid. Nobody explained the school district’s point of view on abandoned buildings, computer education, or teachers without salaries. We never really find out why “Dr. Z.” was fired. The passive voice was used to explain how Matt funded his $90,000 graduate thesis project that started so well in the first flashback, but ended so badly in the second. It’s not that I smell any deep conspiracy, and in fact delving into any of these issues might have unnecessarily complicated the story of Studio H. But a few times I did wonder if the story I was watching is how the average citizen of Bertie County saw things.

Happy Endings

I certainly hope so, because If You Build It, turns out to be a very uplifting film. I was impressed by the good work the students did in class. The chicken coops are creative but functional, and the third project — the outdoor building for the community — really seems to make a difference. I understood the emotional commitment that Emily and Matt felt toward the class and its final project, and I was proud for them when the mayor offered them the key to the city.

The film has a weak opening, and it takes a while to get going, but eventually it won me over. Some of my favorite films are not about love or adventure, but about regular people finding meaningful work. Maybe that means I was biased in favor of If You Build It. But if you’re like me, you’ll probably be moved.