Now more than ever, we need inspirational stories: narratives that make you want to cheer for humanity, in contrast to the constant influx of headlines that make you ashamed for it. Mott Haven is that kind of feel good piece—a human interest story that belongs in the “Dangerous Minds” genre of film, where inner city kids find an outlet through artistic expression via a charismatic school figure. But, unlike the Hollywood cheese, these are real kids, with real struggles. It’s not a sanitized representation with Michelle Pfeiffer performing karate in the classroom. And, it’s all the more powerful because of it.
The film’s teaser description indicates that the film is about a social worker who rallies the community to honor a student following his death. And, yes, while that happens, I’d argue it’s more or less a footnote to the real attraction here: getting to know these kids living in the South Bronx…learning about their lives and their struggles, as they live below the poverty line. They are forgotten and marginalized, yet their voices and artistry manages to make their voice heard.
The production values, at times, are a bit dubious (Morrison literally shot most of the film with a crew of two people, including himself). But, when it comes to documentary material, I’ll take heart of overly finely crafted cinematography any day. Nothing feels artificial here. That might seem like an obvious statement considering it’s a doc. Yet, so much of the non-fiction material I screen for this site has an air of falseness—beautifully shot and composed, but, ultimately, leaving you emotionally cold. In Haven, we get a real sense of who these kids are and how their lives are affected by their friend’s death. Moreover, their victories become our victories. When “Biggie” passes her high school equivalency during a tag at the end of the film, we want to cheer too, her reaction guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Filmmaker Kyle Morrison shows great affection for his subjects and that warmth and compassion comes through on screen. We deeply admire the patience and compassion it takes to make a film such as this. Morrison has begun rehearsals for a narrative short that’s going to star Biggie and her friends, and he is heading to Brazil in a month to begin production on his first feature documentary.