Approaching the Elephant is a documentary from Amanda Wilder about the first year of the Teddy McArdle Free School in New Jersey, where rules are created through a vote (which includes the opinions of the students) and where classes only have to be taken if the children so choose. Documentarian Wilder follows the students and staff, observing a group of children with unique and wild personalities.
The most fascinating aspect of Approaching the Elephant is the style in which Wilder documents the Free School. She has a very hands-off technique. There are no interviews, her voice is rarely heard and no one speaks directly to the camera. Through this the movie becomes a portrait of the real-life goings on which is very fascinating because you see the students picking on each other, pulling the middle finger and demolishing property when no adults besides Wilder are around and this further presents the destructiveness and cruelty of students when they have limited boundaries and next to no supervision.
The lack of supervision is no fault of the staff as we they are but a small number. The most interesting person to follow in Approaching the Elephant is student Jiovanni, the main focus of the movie’s posters. Although the doc is first and foremost examining the difficulties of operating and sustaining a Free School, Jiovanni’s reckless and cruel behavior becomes the forefront of the pic.
He bullies other students, swears, does the opposite of what he is told and wrecks property that isn’t his (some of it even belongs to a church). By the end of the School’s first year, Jiovanni becomes a huge catalyst for the school almost failing. Seeing how matters are handled in the final third of the movie is too interesting to just put into words which is why this reviewer highly recommends checking out Approaching the Elephant for yourself.