A galvanizing portrait of bravery in the face of tragedy, director Kim A. Snyder’s “Us Kids” follows the efforts of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — where 17 people were killed in February 2018 — to demand solutions to America’s longstanding gun problem and call into question the NRA’s tight grip on unscrupulous lawmakers.
Snyder, whose previous feature “Newtown” documented the aftermath of the horrific shooting that unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, introduces the key players in their home environments to recount their trajectory from anonymous teens to unstoppable activists who organized the March for Our Lives and subsequent strategies to harness the young vote and impact the 2018 midterm elections.
The bulk of the narrative centers on the cross-country speaking tour the group embarked on during the summer after the Parkland shooting. At every stop, hostile right-wing detractors disqualify their efforts solely based on their age and deem them puppets of a progressive master plan to disarm the population. The paradoxical idiocy of believing young people should have the right to wield deadly firearms but not mobilize to save their lives is infuriating if, frankly, not surprising.
Implementing social media interactions, on Twitter specifically, as an onscreen storytelling device as well as clips from news broadcasts, the director illustrates the hyperawareness and ruthless media coverage the unprepared adolescent heroes were subjected to. In the aftermath, each of them fights their own internal battle.
Emma Gonzalez, whose rousing speech denouncing gun violence just days after the Parkland events gives the film its title, struggles with self-worth and the serendipitous nature of her rise to becoming a public figure. David Hogg, target to the most hateful attacks and threats, appears collected beyond his years but nonetheless is not unaffected by the toxic onslaught.
“If they kill me they prove my point,” declares Hogg with shattering resolve, the kind that shouldn’t be expected from anybody, much less a high school graduate pondering the possibility of being shot for speaking out. At once inspiring and profoundly disheartening, his words resonate with unspoken pain. Snyder seamlessly interweaves those downhearted moments with small victories — including a civil dialogue with aggressive Second Amendment defenders.
The documentary’s real protagonist, however, is Sam Fuentes, a less public young woman who was shot and survived the Parkland incident. We witness her pushing through the psychological trauma and physical wounds of her ordeal to reclaim a sense of normalcy in a warped reality. Then there’s Milwaukee teen Bria Smith, an essential voice who joins the movement to address the erasure of people of color from the gun control conversations.
In a montage set to Sharon Van Etten’s melancholic hit “Seventeen,” Snyder captures the enviable naivete that allows these kids to believe they can reshape the world or at least try because what’s at stake is their very right to a peaceful existence. Yet the sequence ends with Fuentes goofing around, as if to remind us that no matter how much these boys and girls have surpassed adults in their efforts to enact change, they are just teens who have taken it upon themselves to do what those in charge are unwilling to.
Similar to “Boys State,” another 2020 documentary centered on politically involved American youth, Snyder’s film navigates the waters of apathy and despair on a vessel of hope. Because a country able to foster courageous individuals willing to put themselves on the line for a greater, just cause cannot be morally corroded. The United States has failed them time and again, but in these teenagers there might be a chance for this undeserving nation yet.
For its merits as a dynamic nonfiction piece incisively dealing with a pivotal issue from heartbreakingly human angle, “Us Kids” is indispensable viewing for anyone who genuinely cares about the future of this country beyond “thoughts and prayers.”