If You Build It Directed by Patrick Creadon

Windsor, N.C., is a town in need of a jolt. In 2010, a flood destroyed its central business district. A quarter of its roughly 2,300 residents lives in poverty. Former Manassas school superintendent Sidney “Chip” Zullinger resigned after fewer than three years in Bertie County, which oversees Windsor’s schools; he butted heads with the school board over his plan to provide free Internet access to low-income residents. But while Zullinger served out his tenure, he brought an innovative program to Windsor’s high school students: Studio H, a hands-on design class aimed at teaching kids how to build things. If You Build It, an earnest but engaging film directed by Patrick Creadon, follows the short life of Studio H in Windsor. The class is taught by a young, can-do couple, Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller, who run a California-based nonprofit design firm called Project H. Their students are from a very different world; they’re country folk, a mixture of white and black residents of one of North Carolina’s poorest counties. So it’s easy to assume that If You Build It is going to peddle a condescending Dangerous Minds-like narrative, with privileged middle-class teachers patting themselves on the back for working with disenfranchised youth. But the film mostly steers away from treacle, focusing instead on the likeable kids and their good ideas. Students who start out building cornhole boards are soon building chicken coops, then dedicating most of their summer break to an idea that could help transform the town’s depressed economy. When Studio H’s work is done, things feel a little different around Windsor. As one resident says, “People are excited about things now.”

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