Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Hold Me Tight a worthwhile documentary about troubled kids


Alex is proud of the clothesline sculpture he made at Mulberry Bush School.


Conventional wisdom says the summer TV season is a time for cable series to come to the forefront while broadcast networks rely on reality shows and reruns. And that s definitely true. Less obvious is the wealth of documentary programming that exists.

HBO is routinely airing docs at 9 p.m. Mondays, including tonight s The Yes Men Fix the World, about two pranksters who infiltrate the world of big business to highlight the toll taken by greed and profiteering.

PBS s P.O.V. also offers regular documentaries this summer, such as tomorrow s worthwhile but difficult-to-watch entry, Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go.

Director-producer-cinematographer Kim Longinotto spent months filming the staff and students of Mulberry Bush School in Oxford, England. It s a boarding school for children who have often been emotionally traumatized and whose behavior profane outbursts, spitting at teachers, punching them would not be tolerated in a mainstream educational institution. There are 108 staff members for 40 children, most of them boys, who go through a three-year program.

This 90-minute doc begins on an inauspicious note as a hyper child declares that he kicked a female classmate between the legs, only he uses far more vulgar terminology.

At first it s easy to mistake these kids behavior problems for a simple lack of discipline, but stick with Hold Me Tight and you ll see that the problems these children face are deeply rooted in emotional abuse.

Alex, 8, was kicked out of two schools, including one where he squashed a banana in teacher s face, before coming to Mulberry Bush.

Ben, an 8-year-old with a penchant for biting, worries terribly after he pushes Alex and his friend requires stitches in the back of his head. On another occasion, he swears at Alex: [Screw] you, Alex, your mom s dead.

Robert, 9, urinates on the floor out of excitement every time a kind staff member pays attention to him attention he didn t get at home.

Perhaps what s most amazing in Hold Me Tight is not seeing the children progress over the course of nine months but seeing staff members keep their cool even when faced with spitting, kicking and punching from their young charges. These teachers have the patience of Job as they go about their tasks, trying to salve seemingly irreparable harm done to the children in their care. Although the children are the film s focus, the (mostly) anonymous Mulberry Bush staff members are the film s heroes.

Longinotto eschews the use of a narrator. Instead, the filmmaker allows scenes simply to play out. In the editing of those scenes, she tells a story that depicts the children s rage, the staff s attempts to get them under control (sometimes by simply holding them tight), and, over time, the progress the kids make.

It s not an easy film to watch, but neither is it mawkish or Hallmark-like. The children s rehabilitation takes time, and even when they improve, they don t become angels. Hold Me Tight instead offers a clear-eyed look at what it takes to help emotionally abused kids get back on track and, hopefully, prepare them to lead normal lives.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.

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