'Knock Down the House' Review: Up Versus Down

Primarily known as "the AOC documentary,' Rachel Lears' film also follows Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin during their 2018 primary races.

Knock Down the House documentary

If you have an internet connection, you’ve witnessed, to some extent, the rise of freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. From her viral relatable Instagram live videos to her far left policy proposals, AOC has become a media phenomena. She dominates twitter with more than 4 million followers, she’s heavily criticized by Fox & Friends on a daily basis, and now she takes over Netflix in the documentary Knock Down the House.

Director Rachel Lears (The Hand That Feeds) follows Ocasio-Cortez along with three other women democratic socialists as they attempt to take on incumbent Democrats during the primary elections leading up to the 2018 US midterm elections. “This isn’t about left or right,” Ocasio-Cortez explains, “it’s about up or down.”

Ocasio-Cortez might be the most recognizable name in the group, but Knock Down the House focuses on power in numbers. Lears takes us inside Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, both committees formed to bring working-class democratic socialists to Congress, including AOC. We also follow their work with Amy Vilela, a mother fighting the healthcare system after the tragic death of her daughter, Cori Bush, a former nurse and pastor from Missouri who got involved in politics after the Ferguson protests, and Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter, distressed by environmental hazards of coal on her local community. Each woman faces the establishment head-on with determination.

These candidates are bright, passionate, and, most importantly, motivated by their own personal hardships that drive their desire to make a difference for people like them. Ocasio-Cortez might have become a household name from her charisma and dedication, but Knock Down the House shows us that there are incredible women promoting progressive ideas across the entire country. In a phone call to show Ocasio-Cortez support, Viela remarks, “For one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try.”

These women may be miles apart, but they are united by their forward-thinking ideology. Lears brilliantly weaves their stories together, transitioning seamlessly from the open roads of Nevada to the neighborhoods of Missouri, through the hills of West Virginia, to the energetic streets of Queens. Each woman faces struggles and triumphs throughout her campaign. Their fights are real and urgent and emotional. Touching interviews and a swooping instrumental score will likely leave audiences grabbing for their tissue boxes, despite already knowing the outcomes of these elections.

Knock Down the House takes itself seriously but doesn’t shy away from humor. Every candidate is wickedly smart and surprisingly funny, and the comedic timing of Lears’ camera watching Joe Crowley — the incumbent Democrat whom AOC takes on — nervously rolling up his sleeves only to zoom out revealing Ocasio-Cortez giving an impassioned speech about policy to a cheering audience is insanely satisfying.

The film’s subjects are relatable and charming and the film refuses to play down their personalities. It’s an important step to make for women running for office. In the past, women have been advised to come across as overly serious in an attempt to appear as masculine as possible. By letting these women express themselves on their own terms while displaying their unique perspectives on policy, Lears is breaking apart the boxes that female politicians have been crammed into for so long. It’s refreshing and hopeful and definitely an important message for the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

Dylan is a Chicago local with a love of documentary filmmaking, television, and her pet rabbit, Paul. When she's not working at her full-time job at tastytrade.com, you can find her cooking for friends or discussing the brilliance of The Fast and Furious franchise.