On the sunlit shores of Lake Okeechobee, four teenagers encounter all of the florid rituals that come with their senior year at Pahokee High School. Directors Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan have set short films in this place before (The Send Off, Rabbit Hunt), but their love affair with the tiny Florida town culminates in their debut feature, the eponymously titled Pahokee. The documentary presents us with a year in the life of Na’Kerria, Jocabed, Junior, and BJ as their community pours its warm enthusiasm over another graduating class.
The first event of the school year is the campus-wide campaign for “Miss Pahokee High.” This is when we first meet popular cheerleader Na’Kerria, who is running for the title against one other bright-eyed girl. There are also other coveted titles to go around, including “Miss International Baccalaureate,” and so a week of cellophane-wrapped goodie bags, elaborate posters, free fried food, and promises to do homework in exchange for votes (“I know you don’t want no homework,” says Na’Kerria’s competition) commences.
When Na’Kerria ultimately is named runner-up, it’s heartbreaking, because we’ve had an intimate look at her short-lived but ever-hopeful journey on the campaign trail. While getting her eyebrows done before the big announcement, Na’Kerria tells the aesthetician that she’ll cry if she wins, “But I ain’t crying if I lose.” Upon defeat, tears run in rivulets down her cheeks and she forces a tight smile as the town’s loving paparazzi — smartphone toting parents — snap pictures.
Jocabed is a second-generation American student from Mexico, who helps her parents at the family taco stand whenever she’s not in class. Work is a constant in Jocabed’s household. Even in the midst of notable milestones like bringing her boyfriend home for the first time, or celebratory moments like reuniting with her grandparents after four long years, they continue to pit avocados and assemble tacos through emotional whirlwinds.
We learn less about Junior, except for the fact that he has a one-year-old daughter and that he’s the skilled leader of Pahokee High School’s mesmerizing marching band. His prospects seem grim as he applies for part-time work at the local Dollar General, but Junior banks on the hope that his grandmother will eventually take him and his daughter into her Georgia home.
BJ is one of the star players of the Blue Devils football team. After 13 consecutive wins for the Blue Devils, it becomes clear that football is a popular ticket out for motivated Pahokee High athletes. However, to BJ’s dismay, a devastating oversight affects his chances of being recruited by the top college football leagues.
We root for the latter four students as they prepare for a new chapter outside of Pahokee, but this film is more so an ode to a spirited town than anything else. Lucas and Bresnan offer up a charismatic study of a place that makes up for its dismal economy with an arresting vitality. Bucolic scenes of sugar cane being harvested and tractors in motion are interspersed between the frenetic energy shots of Pahokee’s annual traditions.
It’s palpable that the town has developed a comfortable relationship with the camera crew because despite there being an invasive lens around for instances of delight and despair alike, the residents of Pahokee never seem to notice. And so it’s a special, affecting treat to feel like an honorary member of the community over the course of a tumultuous school year. This animated snapshot shares a glimpse of an unexpected tapestry of Americana rooted in familiar traditions that are celebrated with a heightened degree of fervor.
A constant image throughout the film is the Pahokee water tower. Frenzied scenes from the Homecoming game (fondly referred to as the “Muck Bowl”), a sumptuous prom night, an emotional signing day, and the graduation ceremony for the class of 2017 are marked by stills of the dutiful water tower watching over its town. To see what the water tower sees for the film’s two-hour runtime is to bear witness to a hometown pride that’s likely unparalleled in its vigor.