Viewed one way, If You Build It, the new documentary from filmmaker Patrick Creadon is pretty standard stuff.
If You Build It Documentary
Still from "If You Build It"
If You Build It opens January 10, 2014, at New York's IFC Center and screens in other cities throughout the next few weeks.

In 2010, humanitarian designer Emily Pilloton and her partner (in business and life), architect Matt Miller, arrive in Windsor, North Carolina, to teach a high school design-build class called Studio H, with an eye toward reviving the economically struggling rural community. Over the course of the year, 10 high school juniors learn the basics of design and construction by building three increasingly complex projects: cornhole boards, chicken coops, and, finally, a new farmers’ market pavilion for their town. Despite mounting challenges (pulled funding, natural disasters, strains on their relationship), Pilloton and Miller empower their students and instill hope in the population of Windsor—even if their goal is never fully realized.

This story of idealistic outsiders turning a community around is close to a cinematic cliché. But here, the generic structure is a Trojan horse. Creadon packs into his film’s 82 minutes nuanced discussions of education reform, the plight of rural America and its people, and, most surprisingly, the limits of design’s power to be an engine of civic transformation.

If You Build It approaches its subjects with a refreshing objectivity. Rather than present a heroic view of designers and their ability to change the world while demonizing the critics, the film recognizes that design isn’t a silver bullet for what ails a community—be it urban (there is a subplot involving a house Miller designed and built in Detroit) or rural. Any admiration we feel for Pilloton and Miller or revulsion we feel toward the Bertie County school board comes from our own experience, not from any sort of editorial manipulation. Still, the film rightly celebrates just how much design can accomplish. The students’ arc is inspiring, and the psychological impact Studio H has on Windsor is uplifting, if bittersweet.

In the end, though, what makes If You Build It successful is that it’s not only a design film, it’s also a Great Recession documentary about rural America. With a few exceptions, the recession’s epic toll on these communities has been underrepresented. If only briefly, Creadon offers a corrective. By following Pilloton and Miller into Bertie County, he captures a mostly ignored experience without reducing it to background noise or filler. Design and the economy inextricably feed into one another in the narrative, and it’s a testament to the film that it recognizes and respects this symbiotic relationship.

If You Build It might be a design story at its core, but stand back a bit and you find something grander: A document of America at its most vulnerable.

Dante A. Ciampaglia is a writer, editor, and photographer based in New York.