Film Review: MY NAME IS PEDRO (directed by Lillian LaSalle)

Post image for Film Review: MY NAME IS PEDRO (directed by Lillian LaSalle)

by Tony Frankel on September 30, 2020

in Film


I like when some experts discuss global warming with a realistic bent, but allow that the subject may be too overwhelming for some, causing inertia. The best thing, we are told, is to start now with whatever steps we can take so that it doesn’t seem so daunting to fix a huge and seemingly unfixable problem.

The same can be said about public education in America. How do we improve a system that seems like it’s forever one step forward and two steps back? Presidential ideas such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top offer solutions but still fall short of goals to jump-start the American educational system so that students are prepared for success in college, in careers, and — especially at this divisive time — as citizens. Kids need a well-rounded education not just for careers; they should be prepared as critical readers and thinkers so as to debate ideas with their fellow citizens, to advocate for their ideas in a thoughtful, constructive way — all the tools that you need to be a good citizen.

Enter Pedro Santana, a forty-something Latino principal and, later, assistant superintendent who is the subject of a compelling new documentary that examines both the broken school system (in this case, the South Bronx), and the ways in which we can all have a hand in rectifying the issues in education, and strengthening our children to be better students.

First-time director Lillian LaSalle allows Pedro’s story to unfold without sensationalism or sentimentality, which helps because there is a lot to take in here. Politics, contentious school boards, diversity, underdogs, setbacks, leadership, third-act reveals that no one could see coming, and a contentious school board mostly made up of white Orthodox Jews whose kids go to Yeshivas while a community of color seems powerless to sway the board to make the best choices for their kids in public schools.

It’s surprising we’re not completely beleaguered after 120 minutes, but at the center of this timely story is a fascinating, extraordinary man who grew up in Special Ed and knows what works to get kids involved. How he remains calm in situations that would test any soul is remarkable, and we can see how his methods ripple out into the community. Although LaSalle rightfully lets the narrative take its course, avoiding a talking-heads doc, she could have filled in some gaps for us: it’s a bit perplexing that Pedro’s personal life is a bit fuzzy, including the way he talks of his own children when it’s unclear whether they are adopted, foster kids, or his own.

Still, LaSalle has the right instincts and asks the right questions such that the takeaway is inspiring; we understand that teachers and other public school staff do outstanding work despite huge barriers. It becomes clear in the film that the greatest changes needed in public education are cultural more than policy. My Name Is Pedro asks us to first value both our children and the public education system we have, and then go about improving the system and bettering our kids.

photos courtesy of Sweet 180 Productions

My Name Is Pedro
Sweet 180 Productions
documentary (USA) | 127 Minutes | in English | released September 17, 2020
releasing on VOD and DVD on February 23 in US, Canada and UK

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