There seem to be two kinds of documentaries about disadvantaged and troubled kids: the ones that look at the problem and make you feel angry – and the ones that examine people beating the odds and make you feel good.
“Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon” falls into the aspirational camp: a nonfiction film that starts with a problem – the high-school drop-out rate – and looks at a program that not only keeps potential drop-outs in school, but engages them in such a way as to put them on a path to a different future.
The program is the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which runs a nationwide business-plan competition for high school students. It’s aimed at inspiring and empowering young would-be businessmen and women; the competition doesn’t just require them to come up with a product or service to sell but to create a full business plan and presentation.
They present those business plans as if trying to hook potential investors, with plan, an overview of market and competition and a command of facts and figures at the ready to answer tough questions from the judges. In the process, they must employ the kind of basic skills – math, critical thinking, clear and effective writing – that come from staying in school.
Director Mary Mazzio bounces around the country, finding high-school students in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere. She follows them from regional competitions to the finals in New York. Each competitor has a chance to pitch his or her product in presentations that become increasingly refined as they make them over and over.
But each contestant also gets a back-story, usually involving his or her parents, teachers or guardians. Most come from a background of poverty; several have parents with substance-abuse problems. Some are first-generation Americans or immigrants themselves.
They have two things in common: obstacles in their past that they’ve had to overcome to even stay in school – and a need to succeed and exceed others’ expectations of them.
Mazzio’s contestants move up the rungs to the finals; they’re all voluble, eager and ambitious. Still, the template for her interviews seems fairly rigid; you see contestants and their parents answering the same set of questions, sometimes back to back. There’s a certain repetitive quality to some of these interviews, though the sheer drive and enthusiasm of the individual students can be thrilling.
These kind of films – Jeffrey Blitz’s “Spellbound” comes to mind – have built-in suspense and drama. Here, even the kids who are runners-up at the competition seem like winners (there are, of course, some tears), with a future that wouldn’t have been there, had they dropped out.
Mazzio, however, feels the beating heart of the striver – and, as a result, “Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon” never drags, even as it offers an important message to audiences.