In my hometown of Harrisburg, PA, there's a house on Walnut Street populated by a person I refer to as "Anti-Abortion Guy". I'm actually not sure whether a man, woman, or entire family lives there, but that's the nickname I've given to the owner of the house. The front lawn is adorned by a large sign decorated with all sorts of fist-clenching phrases, like "Planned Parenthood is a Friend of Pedophiles", "God Bless Pat Robertson" and large, graphic photos of aborted fetuses. It makes driving to and from work all the more enjoyable, believe me.
In Shelby Knox's hometown of Lubbock, TX, her school won't educate students about safe sex, including the use of condoms. They've been directed to tell students that abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases---and while that's certainly true, this all-or-nothing approach to sex education leaves many young people in the dark. Despite Knox's upbringing as a conservative Christian and her personal vow of abstinence before marriage, she wants others to have the opportunity to learn about alternatives. Unfortunately, despite her efforts, the school board is reluctant to change things.
Here's the link between these two stories: freedom of speech is a wonderful thing, but it's a double-edged sword once you realize you're not the only one speaking. Knox learned this and another cold, hard fact of life at a relatively young age: one person can really make a difference, but it's not easy. As a vocal member of the Lubbock Youth Commission, her mission to promote sex education in school was met with plenty of controversy---at home, school and church, for starters. As conservative Republicans, Shelby's parents were actually supportive of her efforts…that is, until she furthered her cause to include the gay and lesbian community. After all, how can these young men and women wait until marriage when they're not allowed to get married?
Anyway, enough stirring the pot, because an angry debate is exactly the solution that The Education of Shelby Knox (2005) doesn't promote; instead, this documentary promotes tolerance above all else. Filmed over a three-year period during Knox's high school years, we follow the young woman (above left) as she champions the cause of sex education and a peaceful understanding between opposing sides. Littered with local news clips, scenes for Knox's family life and several public events, The Education of Shelby Knox is the little documentary that could; though decidedly one-sided, it balances the issues deftly and remains engaging throughout.
If the film has one fault, though, it's that it picks a few easy targets. A scene near the film's end shows footage of anti-gay groups carrying "God Hates Fags" picket signs and the like; certainly, these people are flagrant morons, but it's really hard not to look like the good guy when you're up against them. The film awkwardly closes with the revelation that the school superintendent was fired for having an affair while on the clock, almost as a cheap "I told you so". Despite these occasional faults, though, The Education of Shelby Knox is a skillfully crafted and inspiring documentary that teens and adults will learn from. In all honesty, filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt have done an exceptional job keeping things organized and concise.
As part of the Ironweed Film Club, The Education of Shelby Knox is only available via club subscription for a modest monthly charge. Ironweed promotes the cause of independent filmmakers with a continuing series of films sent out to regular subscribers. So, while it's not as easy as clicking "Add to Cart" at Amazon, the DVD in question is, in my opinion, worth taking that extra step for. Boasting a decent technical presentation, a few interesting bonus features and a reasonable price tag, The Education of Shelby Knox is a great choice for fans of provocative documentaries.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, The Education of Shelby Knox looks good for a low-budget documentary. The color palette is clean and bright, while the outdoor footage and well-lit indoor scenes look quite pleasing. Only the smallest bit of edge enhancement popped up during the main feature, with any other minor digital problems due to the source material. The 2.0 Stereo mix is also basic but serviceable, offering strong music and clear dialogue---and while a few scenes display a variance in the overall volume level, it's a quality presentation overall.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the straightforward menu designs for this DVD offer a clean layout and easy navigation. The 76-minute main feature has been divided into a scant 7 chapters (though no actual index is provided), while no layer change was detected during playback. The packaging is also fairly basic, as this one-disc release is housed in a clear slim case with double-sided artwork and an insert booklet with a brief film overview and director's statement.
There aren't any film-related extras on board here, and that's a real shame: for starters, an audio commentary or a few interviews with the cast and crew would've been great. With that said, a pair of additional shorts---both with themes similar to those found in Shelby Knox---have been included, though they don't walk the line as skillfully.
Jesus Henry Christ (17:27, presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen) is up first, and it centers around a bold young man in a strict religious school. It's very heavy-handed in execution, though the look of the film stands out prominently in the same way that Wes Anderson's do. The chief "bad guy" in the film, a cruel headmaster with a penchant for paddling, is mildly engaging but too over-the-top to be the villainous backbone of this odd short.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (13:43, presented in 1.33:1) is also included, and it's slightly stronger in tone, but still flawed. This "collage" strings together dozens of worldly images with comments on the decline of women's rights and the like, but the overall narrative comes across as smug and arrogant at times. It's obviously a labor of love for director Tiffany Shlain (who also provides a brief Introduction to the film), but she ultimately seems to be preaching to the choir amd the film suffers for it.
It may not be "Sleeper of the Year" material, but there's no doubt that The Education of Shelby Knox is a worthwhile documentary that open-minded people of all ages should appreciate. Shelby's story is inspiring from start to finish; her dedication to sex education is proof enough of this, but her willingness to step outside religious boundaries is the real heart of the story. Ironweed's sixth DVD presentation is fairly basic but solid, offering a decent technical presentation and a few thematically-related bonus features. All things considered, The Education of Shelby Knox is a nice package for the asking price and certainly worth hunting down. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.