I Promise review – no child should be left behind

By Marc Miller
Published: April 23, 2020 (Last updated: 3 weeks ago)
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I Promise (Quibi) review - no child should be left behind


I Promise isn’t a puff piece for Lebron James, but a glimpse of when resources allow you to not just hypothesize an outside-the-box idea, but implement it to create change instead of waiting on others. Uplifting and inspiring, if seen through slightly rose-colored glasses.

This review of I Promise (Quibi) is spoiler-free.

“Every 26 seconds a kid drops out of High School… that doesn’t make sense.” That’s the spark that Lebron James is hoping will start an education revolution in his hometown of Akron, Ohio with the new documentary, I Promise (Quibi). The mission? Not necessarily to find the next great scholar, like a guy cleaning the floors of MIT or a high-school student who secretly loves to write and is discovered by an old agoraphobic who won’t leave his high-rise apartment. The goal is to address issues of the students who are at risk because that addresses social-emotional support and aims to stabilize the student’s home situations to help the learning experience at home — there just happens to be a camera crew to document the whole thing.

I Promise refers to the I Promise School that opened up on July 30th, 2018 in Lebron James’s hometown. The school’s main mission was to be a public school open to at-risk youth which provides the change in the public school system. This institution is not a charter school or a private school. These students were selected from the lowest 25th percentile with a random lottery process, who would be in danger of dropping out of high school before their senior year. The aspect that you can find interesting or more of a questionable sociology experiment is that the end goal is not necessarily academic. “The goal is to see what these kids look like in eighth grade when they are re-released back into high school.”

What hits home the most is a group of third-grade students during share time talking about hiding under their beds as SWAT raided their homes, arresting their loved ones for violating parole, and tales of siblings being killed. When you combine that with the stories of parents who need to work six days a week from taking care of the elderly, a “Papi” who is working a back-breaking job to take care of his grandkids because his son can’t. All of these hit their mark and fit the narrative the documentary is driving home by getting involved with students’ home lives that may hinder their ability to learn; the goal is to get kids to the next grade level even though they are so far behind.

I Promise uses a structure of other documentaries about sociological issues that focus on the chronicling of a set amount of subjects and the uphill battle each has. For instance, Netflix’s 2018 Recovery Boys focused on four men with addictions issues, and their fates are never on solid ground. Here, the pressure is greater when it comes to children, and very young ones at that.

Nate, for instance, a third-grade student who is reading at a kindergarten level because of learning disabilities that stem from his behavioral issues. He would rather act out, lash out, or walk out than have the class know that he doesn’t know what he should have known at this age.

Dae’Shaunna is the child who practically exudes a natural-born charisma whose goal was to stay in the classrooms for only 15 minutes at a time. Every time she opens her mouth, she reminds you she may be a candidate for Kids Say the Darndest Things: Uncut Edition (“All my teachers I had in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade: I hate them stupid dumb bastards. Mmm.”) She also reads well above her grade level and when she acts out you want to do whatever you can channel that negative foresight into something positive.

I Promise Nate

Vincent is a fourth-grade student who reads at a 2nd-grade level and was born with Klippel Feil syndrome (a very rare condition where his cervical spine, C3, 4 and 5, never separated and stayed one long bone) who refuses to enter the classroom for the first eight weeks of the school year. A teacher describes him as a charming old man in a young boy’s body and the concept of friends is new to him, which explains his desire to stand outside the social bubble instead of busting through it.

Randy is a third-grade student who has frequent emotional outbursts, many that inflict self-harm, brought on by the heart-breaking realization that he and his mother have been going through endless bouts of homelessness in shelter and motels.

Scout is a quiet child who has internalized her own trauma, which has struggled with her mother’s health her entire life (her mom has epilepsy and frequently has to move her mother to her side when she has a seizure). Scout’s brain processes information differently because of extreme stress.

I Promise was directed by Marc Levin (Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock), a man who has specialized in documentary series’, partially ones that are heavy in themes of socioeconomic issues in inner-city environments. Besides focusing on the student, he wisely shines a spotlight for an episode on the teachers there to implement the vision. Often, they must admit they are under a romantic notion that they can change the world, succumb to the pressures of the stress of dealing with children who need more than the basic tools these altruistic men and women who have learned and need more to create the change they aspire to make.

In documentaries of this ilk, there is always the concern students playing for the camera or even the adults who are so above reproach here I wonder if these angels have the patience of Mother Terresa or did the cameras simply not capture the great toll it takes on them to install this plan under trying circumstances (the web series did briefly address). I would have liked to see the filmmakers give equal treatment to show that psychological toll on the teachers that, despite their best efforts, would be very hard not to take home with them. Which would make sense since the goal of emotional support, getting involved in home lives, would tend to blur the lines between professional interest and a personal one.

I Promise isn’t a puff piece for Lebron James as much as it is really a look at not just hypothesizing an outside the box idea, but implementing it to see if they can create change instead of waiting on someone else to do it. The film is watched with slightly rose-colored glasses that like seeing a mouth-watering meal that’s about to be served and not seeing the work involved in preparing it. Still, the story here is meant to inspire, to create change, and show you anything is possible, which is something we need at the moment and is easy to admire.

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