PAHOKEE

Written by Freddie Johnson for Encounters Film Festival

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Kids grow up fast here. They grow up or they don’t get out. This is Pahokee Florida, a small town, a farm town, a go nowhere town.

This fly on the wall documentary follows four kids through the intense drama of their final school year. “We here!” the cheer team shout into Snapchat. That’s all they’re asking for. To be acknowledged, for someone to say, “Yes, you’re there.”

Girls cheer, boys play. Sex and strength. The sexism is almost comical. We watch them straining under pressure, smiling through tears as poverty, popularity, sports and the burden of their parents’ stories weighs around their necks. The look in their eyes is hard. It’s a grind to make the best of the meagre step their parents have carved for them, knowing the world is not built for them to succeed. Hope, but not so much it hurts. Dream, but know your place. Reach, but not too far. Not all of them make it, their kids will have to try again.

“Don’t be like me!” the coaches on the football field yell, as they push their proteges to fulfil their dead dreams. Tackles go bad, this is how concussions are made. This is knee injuries and future shop keepers who say, “I could’ve been.” Their school is poorly equipped compared to the whiter competition, but they win the state championship anyway. For a moment, the town comes together, but a technical error strips them of the title. It’s heart-breaking. A trophy means college offers, it means you’re from somewhere, it means pride.

Here, everyone lives for the pageantry. Their faces open up thinking about it. The marching band in ridiculous uniforms, the cheerleaders and floats. Miss Pahokee High School rides down Main Street, attempting a regal wave. The plastic crown and glossy confetti is tacky, if it was only superficial it might at least be harmless but it’s the ritual that reinforces the ideology. Work hard and this can be you and, if it’s not, that’s your lookout. They believe these hollow things have value and so they do. For a few nights a year they try on the success that rap stars talk about. Their Met Gala is a school hall, they can’t afford all the themed decorations from the catalogue.

Intermittently, we return to outside. Smoke blooms up from stubble burning in fields, obscuring the sky. We remember how little else there is.