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American Letdown: 7 Films to Watch This Week

Idris and his friend Seun, the subjects of Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson's doc American Promise, have a laugh together.

Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson's doc American Promise is a story about outsized hopes fostered by the American educational system, and the equally outsized disappointments that await those who dare to believe in their own will to power.

Because of its focus, it's easy to mistake the film, which was culled from over 800 hours of footage, for an advocacy piece. In a way, that was the original intent, but what the pair ended up creating is far more valuable--an unfettered look at two young men as they grow into adulthood.

Originally, the film's director's titled it "The Dalton Experiment" after an ambitious outreach project undertaken at the prestigious Dalton School of New York which resulted in the enrollment of a number of African American children. As the project continued, institutions stayed accessible, but parents backed away, and the filming soon paired down to two boys, their own son Idris and his friend, Seun Summers.

In scope, American Promise resembles nothing so much as Michael Apted's Up series, a work of which both directors are avowed admirers. The inevitable cultural differences between Idris and Seun and the predominately white students and teachers at the Dalton School make for interesting drama, and there is something to be gleaned to about being young, male and black here, but the individual stories of these boys, captured with a rare amount of access, make it difficult to generalize and more rewarding to just observe their fascinating development. For their part, each family endures a series of hardships of their own, including both students being placed on academic probation (the film gently raises questions as to whether this is race-motivated or genuine) and fears of low self-esteem engendered by their excluded status, as well as parental frustrations that this generation isn't working hard enough with what they're been given.

Boasting some remarkably tight, narrative editing for such an expansive project, American Promise never seems overlong at 2 hours and 14 minutes. On the countrary, it's a pleasure to watch Idris and Seun as they develop, and a shame to let them go. Rather than generate a film that seperates, Brewster and Stephenson have captured something universal: what it's like to be young, smart, and at odds with our country's precarious educational system. Rotten Tomatoes: 82%. Roxie.

ALSO PLAYING: 

The Armstrong Lie - Alex Jibney (Taxi To The Dark Side), once lambasted for his honest attempts to make a documentary about disgraced cycling star Lance Armstrong, emerges years later with a totally different film. It's not only a searing indictment of the man himself--a glory-grabbing sleaze that lies with particular ease--but a provocative peek at widespread corruption within the sport itself. Rotten Tomatoes: 90%. Embarcadero.

You Don't Know Jack! Kennedy Film Rarities - For the upcoming 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assasination in Dallas, Oddball invites guest curator Lynn Cursaro to select a series of short programs about the former president, including Bruce Connor's sizzling manipulation of the assasination footage, Report. Friday 11/15. Oddball Film + Video.

La Joli Mai - La Jetée director Chris Marker's recently restored 1963 documentary about the daily lives of Parisians on the street runs nearly three hours, but never suffers from a case of the doldrums. At all moments it's endearing, interesting, and romantically rendered. Rotten Tomatoes: 88%. Opera Plaza.

How I Live Now - Saorsie Ronan (Atonement) seems shockingly different in Last King of Scotland director Kevin MacDonald's near-future drama. The plot lags at some points, but Ronan is always captivating. Rotten Tomatoes: 66%. Opera Plaza.

Tabu - Arrested History: New Portuguese Cinema, PFA's survey of the increasing (and increasingly relevant) output of the European republic continues with Miguel Gomez's entrancing b&w oddity, Tabu. It might be the best adaptation Gabriel Garcia Marquez captured on screen--except it's not based on the work of the Columbian novelist. Followed by The Last Time I Saw Macau. Rotten Tomatoes: 87%. Sat, Nov 16. PFA Berkeley.

Napa Valley FF - The wine country film festival returns with over 125 films and plenty of star power including Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in the Mary Poppins-centered drama Saving Mr. Banks, Julia Roberts (among others) in August: Osage County, and Joaquin Phoenix in The Immigrant. Regional treats from broad assortment of wineries and restaurants make the fest a good weekend trip. Various venues in Napa Valley.