The Doc Option: Watch ‘American Promise’ If You Like ‘Boyhood’


The raves are flying thick around Boyhood, the long-time-in-the-making new film from director Richard Linklater which finally opens in theaters this weekend. Linklater and his crew shot the movie over the course of 12 years, so that they could capture the main character age in real time, from a young boy to a high school graduate. I can vouch for pretty much every good thing you’ve heard about the movie. It’s a fantastically moving, incredibly true-to-life piece of work, and an impressive accomplishment. It is not, however, a unique accomplishment, no matter how many critics may think it is.

While the scope of Boyhood’s production period may rival any completed fiction film, there are numerous documentary projects of equal or greater scale. An easy example is the Paradise Lost trilogy, which revisited the same legal case over a 17-year period. An even easier example is the Up series, which has been revisiting the same set of subjects every seven years for the last half century. But this week’s Doc Option is a film whose structure hews remarkably close to that of Boyhood. In fact, these two movies were trying to do almost the same thing — and with a significant overlap in the time during which they shot — but on opposite sides of the fiction/nonfiction coin.

American Promise was shot over the course of 13 years instead of 12. It has two protagonists, not one (though with both movies, you can argue that the parents are just as important as the main characters are). And while Boyhood is concerned with a variety of subjects that have to do with growing up, this doc is centered around one specific topic: education. When their son Idris started kindergarten, directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson decided to follow him and his best friend, Seun Summers, for the entirety of the boys’ grade school years. Up until their high school graduation, they’d have cameras trained on them, documenting the ups and downs in their learning process.

Both families featured in the documentary are black, which is the major dividing line between their experiences and those of the characters in Boyhood. While Brewster, Stephenson and the Summers are all thoroughly middle-class, institutional racism still makes Idris and Seun’s schooling far more of an uphill battle than it should be. The boys were among the first non-white students accepted to a prestigious private school in Manhattan, and the subtle ways the teachers and curriculum chafe them makes for a fascinating study in how unintentional but nonetheless harmful attitudes play themselves out in these environments. Anyone who tries to deny that there’s anything racist about it will be stymied when one of the boys flunks out of the elite academy only to thrive at a much poorer but all-black school.

While American Promise and Boyhood have different things on their minds, it’s where they overlap that’s most interesting. In both films, the viewer sees young boys become young men before their eyes, more than a decade compressed into less than three hours. Something like parental affection is forged between the audience and these characters. And both films capture how mundane yet scarily unpredictable life is, and how the mundane can sometimes feel miraculous in how universal it is among different people’s experiences. Major life events and everyday routines are played out with the same, evenhanded eye.

Taken alone, each of these films is tremendous, but together, they enrich one another. It may be a lot to ask to stack up a double feature of two quite long movies, but the experience would definitely be worth it.

Boyhood is now playing in theaters. American Promise arrives on DVD on September 2nd.

LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at