Following in the footsteps of last year’s Boys State, Maisie Crow’s At the Ready is another documentary about an education program in Texas that pushes young people toward conservative ideology. It’ll make you just as worried for the next generation of Americans as Boys State did, although unfortunately this rather standard doc isn’t nearly as compelling or insightful.
Crow documents a group of high school seniors at El Paso’s Horizon High School as they take a law enforcement education class, which essentially trains them up to be police officers, and in some cases, work in border patrol. It was interesting to see the film just weeks after watching Fernanda Valadez’s brilliant Identifying Features, which deals with the harrowing dangers that await Mexicans trying to cross the US/Mexico border. Notably, the majority of Crow’s subjects are Mexican immigrants or the children of immigrants. She does a strong job of empathetically conveying how they’re indoctrinated into thinking that they’re doing the right thing by enforcing immigration policies, even though it will negatively impact people like their own families.
By focusing on teenagers who are still in school, Crow encourages the viewer to empathize with well-meaning individuals who may one day become cogs in a violent system, and understand how they get from A to B. She does this by focusing on education. As a title card tells us, Horizon High School is one of more than 900 high schools in Texas that offer law enforcement education. As depicted in At the Ready, this education involves tactics like showing the kids a video advert for the police force that’s shot and edited like a high octane action film. They’re sucked in by the spectacle of it all, and the energetic jolt acting out a pretend police raid. The teachers emphasize the positive elements of the job and make little effort to prepare them for the potential emotional trauma it brings with it––more like a recruitment drive than an educational class.
The kids explain to camera why they want to go into law enforcement, one reason being that “you can help your family and other people.” On a more practical level, many of the kids in the film are from working class families, and law enforcement is one of the only well paying jobs available to them that doesn’t require a college degree. Still, it’s clear the education program hasn’t prepared these kids for the reality of working in the force: one girl gets the job of her dreams, only to break down and question her values when she hears the sound of families crying at the border.
Unfortunately, despite the interesting and pertinent subject matter, Crow’s film feels shapeless and unfocused. There’s an attempt to pick out some main characters, by highlighting and occasionally returning to a select few students throughout the runtime. We go into their homes and find out about their lives and families, but Crow doesn’t spend enough time with any one of them for us to feel like we know them all that well. The film isn’t particularly stylistically distinctive (it looks slightly washed out) and it has some sound issues throughout, which could have been forgiven if it was more structurally coherent. Instead, what we get is a lot of good material presented in a rather straightforward manner.
At the Ready premiered at Sundance Film Festival.