Pacing the streets of this country, in and out of shops and restaurants humming with cell phones and pop culture, it's hard to reconcile the fact that LaLee's Kin takes place in the present era. Filmed in the deep South of Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, this documentary follows Lalee Wallace (LaLee) and her huge brood of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It also deals with the Tallahatchie School District's efforts to achieve ITBS scores high enough to elevate the school out of its ranking as the worst public school system in the country.
One of the children in Lalee's care is a young girl known as "Granny," who spends her time watching the younger children and helping her grandmother with everyday tasks, such as driving to the local jail to fill jugs of water. As LaLee reasons, "everyone pays taxes," so the water is public. Granny's optimism and ambition runs parallel to the determination of the school district to raise its test scores.
A frequent problem found in this vein of documentation is the uncomfortable voyeuristic guilt inherent in anonymously viewing the sufferings of others. LaLee's Kin is certainly alive with details and circumstances that jar the average viewer, but without the sense that these aspects are being magnified for spectatorship. The film's depiction of the schools' grossly inadequate budget and incoming students is coherent, without over-emotionalizing or distancing itself from its subjects.
However, LaLee's Kin saves itself from the vast heap of deadpan documentations that simply depict or exploit tragedy, by empathically respecting and appreciating its subjects. What could be a feature-length downer is in fact a rousingly hopeful representation of progress, however simple it may seem relative to normative standards. This is no idle cinematic swat at social, racial, and economic issues, and the depiction is troubling at best. However, sidestepping what easily could have been a tone of pleading or condemnation, it ends on an upward-facing note. Its solidarity with and advocacy of its subjects gives them a dignity uncompromised by obvious exploitation.