Set during what one administrator calls the “gangster phase” of the nascent Teddy McArdle Free School, Approaching the Elephant thrives on an assured sense of chaos. Unfolding over the course of the 2007-2008 school year, Amanda Rose Wilder’s documentary employs a sketchy sense of chronology and a discordant soundtrack in order to convey the rambunctious rhythms of life at Teddy McCardle, which is housed in the rented basement of a church in Little Falls, New Jersey. There’s a thrilling, heedless disregard for emotional, temporal, and spatial logic within the film’s first few shots: nervous children (aged six to 11) arrive for their first day of school; then a boy is half-naked and plastered in paint; then, perhaps concurrently, a girl ties her wrists and ankles together with masking tape. Rife with smash cuts and tightly focused shots of children at play, Approaching the Elephant’s 90 minutes are a disorienting cyclone of destructive incidents and propulsive energy.
The rules and rhythms of the free school—an experimental form of education, first established by Spanish anarchists in the early 20th century—are explicated early on, as school director Alex Khost attempts to introduce the children to its governing principles. The day is relatively unstructured and institutional rules mostly adhere to matters of personal safety. A small group of administrators offer optional classes, and the children are encouraged to foster their interests by starting their own. Subsequent procedural rules are decided in “democratic meetings,” where proposals are offered and decided by majority vote. Situations of immediate concern (fights, bullying) can be interrupted by mandatory “emergency meetings,” where both parties state their cases and other students and administrators help to resolve the conflict.
A series of scenes emphasizing children wielding hammers, hacksaws, and power tools are a dynamic metaphor for the stakes at Teddy McArdle, as the children come to realize the extent of their power. Wilder zooms in on little hands grasping grown-up tools, then observes them building structures (a ramp for bike jumps, a clubhouse loft) and tearing them down in fits of anger and frustration. Adults react awkwardly, balancing praise and condemnation. The line between anarchy and a sort of loosely guided education in social dynamics and practical education is thin, and the elements of Wilder’s direct-cinema approach foster that tension. The sound of students playing piano is a fitful soundtrack: Sometimes its tones are of messy, productive learning; at others, it’s a demented, mocking horror score to an improvised comedy of manners. Operating as a one-person crew, Wilder has no reverse shots to rely on, so confrontations between administrators and students have an uneasy, lurching rhythm, patched over with tricks of sound editing. The effect heightens Teddy McArdle’s lack of structure and occasionally dismaying lack of supervision, grasping the volatile energy of the school and the weird pressure inherent in managing it.
Approaching the Elephant’s close-up, black-and-white images have an innate affinity for all of Teddy McArdle’s students, but Wilder’s camera lingers most intently on two children that embody the school’s perils and promise. Jiovanni, 11, has a magnetic charisma and a flair for artistic and design pursuits, but he’s restless and prone to acting out in an environment that seems free of punitive consequence. Lucy, seven, is engaged in the democratic process, but her rule proposals apply almost exclusively to her own, immediate happiness. The two develop something of a playground romance, but Wilder is most interested in how they test the school’s director. Lucy threatens to leave the school when Alex prevents her from jumping from a considerable height onto a mattress after multiple children are injured doing the same thing. Jio’s increasingly brazen acts of rebellion prompt emergency meetings that disrupt democratic meetings. Other students come to realize that his actions are hindering their education, which leads to some heated votes and overheated manipulation from school administrators.
Wilder seems reluctant to tilt her attention toward the adults in the room (an ultimatum at the fulcrum point of the Jio drama is a frustrating narrative gambit), but she handles them with wit and dignity. Early on, Alex explains the school’s fundamental paucity of rules to the children, before scolding one of them for attempting to go outside without supervision. Administrators gather to earnestly assess and cheerlead their progress, and then chase students around the school’s hallway trying to add an educational component to their jocular whims. Under the school’s ethos, their guidance seems almost fundamentally hapless, and Wilder’s rigorously ambiguous technique sees both merit and danger in their approach. In a quiet room, Lucy tries to express her dissatisfaction with a classmate’s drawing, and gives herself an education in psychology, sociology, and art criticism as she calibrates her response. “It’s not my style of drawing. I’m not trying to be mean…I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m saying that I don’t like it.” It’s the sort of casually profound moment, of burgeoning passions colliding with social sensitivities, that Approaching the Elephant thrives on.