Although oddly evoking the baseball fantasy of Field of Dreams, Patrick Creadon’s If You Build It’s title intends to act more as a challenge, pointing us toward a way of possibly overcoming our nation’s increasingly anemic state of public education. Using the dilapidated small town of Windsor, North Carolina as a test subject, designers and architects Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller create a class, named Studio H, that intends to directly benefit the struggling community by tapping into the area’s resources in order to jumpstart new enterprises and form jobs. Pilloton and Miller teach fundamental structural design to a hodgepodge of students more adept at either ranching or football, and the class eventually outlines and builds a farmer’s market pavilion in the hopes of aiding Windsor’s feeble economy.
The film hopes to draw attention to America’s seeming indifference to the failing public school issue by focusing on an admittedly alluring innovation that also helps local commerce, but the well-intentioned message is left innocuous by Creadon’s messy, curiously elliptical execution. Consistently grappling with his material, the filmmaker cobbles the footage together by alternating between social-issue and human-interest story, fish-out-of-water character study, relationship drama, backcountry profile, and the schmaltzy tried-and-true teacher-inspires-students audience-pleaser. He throws too much on the screen with each new story, and this excess results in pertinent background information or context left without further exploration. The film’s actual content effectively comes off as merely anecdotal, much like handwritten notes scrawled between the margins of a rough draft rather than embedded within the text itself.
It seems unfortunate, then, that most of the provocative research amassed that taps into Creadon’s message suffers from the frequent inclusion of trivial asides. Studio H students are shown in their other classes at school, which turn out to be predominately computer courses with no teachers, including, inexplicably, a phys-ed class. Instead of dwelling further into the possible ramifications these school board decisions entail, Creadon is more apt to provide wholesome sequences of Studio H students’ home life, including one needlessly protracted scene showing a teen singing Christmas carols, and off-key, at church while periodically checking his phone. Not only do these asides feel tonally lost, but they make the film impenetrable in the sense that nothing is developed far enough to establish any connection between material and audience.
It isn’t until the rushed conclusion when Creadon shows the possibilities of what If You Build It could have been. As Pilloton and Miller succeed in building the pavilion, but are subsequently driven out of Windsor due to lack of support, one interviewee states how the town always looked at them as competition. Beginning with the fact that Pilloton and Miller had renounced their salaries and lived on grants, the film never follows through on this aspect to become a more disciplined microcosm of a growing national concern. Yes, the state of America’s education system is a crucial issue, but you’d forget that’s what If You Build It was about in the first place if it didn’t get so distracted with other interests.