There’s a strange and probably impossible purity to Kati with an I, Robert Greene’s first documentary feature (his second, Fake It So Real, is currently on the festival circuit). Impossible because it’s a contemporary story about young love that doesn’t display or refer to any text messages or emails or Facebook, because it makes a Red Jumpsuit Apparatus song sort of make you want to cry, and because its central tension feels so profoundly earnest.
Shot in 2009, Kati with an I follows the smart, well-adjusted 18-year-old Kati Genther (Greene’s half-sister, though you don’t learn this during the film) from her last day of class through her graduation from a high school in Jacksonville, Alabama. Through its abstract yet fluid first half hour (composed of grooming rituals, home videos of a young Kati reciting poetry, and cleverly employed phone conversations between Kati and the director), the facts of Kati’s rather confusing circumstances are established: At the end of the week, she’s moving to North Carolina (where her parents have recently relocated, leaving her to complete high school) to attend college, presumably with her 21-year-old boyfriend, a PacSun-outfitted McDonald’s employee named James.
Punctuated by ceremonies that each serve as rites of passage (a pool party, a Baccalaureate, a graduation), the film is keen to the fact that these events only lead to a terrifying, gaping void: the summer before college, when teenagers think life will actually begin. The emptiness of this span hangs over the film like a pall, as Kati spends her last long, boring days with her friends and boyfriend in Alabama. Apart from one jarring graduation speech, which vigorously illustrates the setting’s red-state bona fides, Greene largely avoids anthropologizing this love story. His gaze is focused firmly on the gazes and touches of his young subjects, and the minor details that remind you of their youth: a Twilight poster on a bedroom wall, a mirror bordered with the phrase “I love you so much it’s retarded” written in Wite-Out.
The film’s sun-dappled images (by Sean Price Williams, whose work—along with Greene’s sound editing—make the film an aesthetic cousin to Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s similarly poetic October Country) indulge in their uncertain languor. Stretches spent wandering around a mall or hanging out by a pool feel endless, and will doubtless test some viewers’ patience, but they’re fraught with telling gestures that Kati clearly agonizes over, trying to dilute minor squabbles spoken and silent with “I love you”s. There’s an indelible tension here, and Greene milks it for all its worth; in a way, Kati with an I is the Everyone Else of naïve high school love stories, complete with two extended musical numbers and a suitably ambiguous ending.