Early on in No Small Matter, directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, audiences are introduced to Rachel Giannini, the lead teacher in Highland Park Community Nursery School and Day Care Center’s Yellow Room. The film goes to great lengths to paint her as the ideal teacher—whimsical, motherly, engaged and energetic, she guides her students with compassion and leads by example. Her philosophy is simple: children, especially at a young age, require a teacher who relates to them, and helps them explore the world around them. Every interaction, with adults and with their peers, is an opportunity to learn and be nurtured.
When we see later that she, after all the craft and passion she puts into her work, must still tend bar to make ends meet, it’s a sobering revelation. She’s a bright spot in a blunt, sometimes bleak, portrayal of the current state of early childhood education in this country.
There’s the central tension of the film—how do we reconcile the need for quality childcare, and the abysmal economic situation so many of us are currently in? Parents do not have enough money to pay for proper childcare and education, and the professionals that provide it are not being compensated with a living wage.
It’s a problem that is self perpetuating: children who have been neglected or abused at an early age grow up to have fewer opportunities, and repeat the cycle with their own children.
To make matters even worse: it’s been scientifically proven that the first five years of life are amongst the most important when it comes to brain development—these years have a dramatic impact on the future of a person’s life. The brain is developing at such a rapid pace that each moment is critical. Everything from behavior to intelligence can be altered for better or worse in these early stages. No wonder Alfre Woodard, the film’s narrator, announces that the project is less a film and more a “call to action.”
The film balances talking heads, info graphics and interviews with families around the country who are struggling to care for pre-school age children. It’s oftentimes a fools errand. One mother estimates that childcare would cost her family $2000 a month; the filmmakers estimate that it is generally more expensive to send a kid to daycare than it is to fund a student’s tuition to public college.
It all plays like a primer for the subject matter, a sort of “Early Childhood Education 101.” The filmmakers manage to break down the dense material into digestible chunks, such as sections on “Toxic Stress” (how prolonged exposure to abuse and neglect can damage a developing mind) and explanations of brain functions (you’ll hear about the pre-frontal cortex a lot; spoiler alert—it is VERY important).
These detours serve to paint the larger picture, and credit should go to the filmmaking team for never allowing the more sophisticated concepts to become boring. Although a section applauding the military for recognizing early childhood education as a matter of national security (read: we need to raise kids right or they won’t be able to serve in the armed forces) may leave a bad taste in some mouths.
Ultimately it is the human element, the pops of hope and despair that really drive No Small Matter’s message home. A section showing a community program that provides mothers with childcare while they study for their GEDs is particularly moving; watching a couple who work alternating night and day shifts, exhausted yet preparing breakfast for their young son, trying to maintain a small slice of normality is both touching and heartbreaking.
The Chicago-produced project has many supporters in Illinois politics, including Governor Pritzker and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, and the film is returning to the Siskel Center after sold-out showings in June, just in time for the new school year. It’s clear that the filmmakers intend to ride the momentum of their project and hope to make real change, reminding us that cinema is oftentimes the most democratic form of activism—and I’d wager that anyone who sees No Small Thing will likely agree that something needs to be done. I think one expert puts it the best: “It’s not babysitting. It’s brain building.”
And while as a piece of documentary cinema it doesn’t break any new ground, No Small Matter really gets under your skin. As an adult with no children, it had me wondering about my own development—what were my first five years like? Did I get enough attention? How was my wiring affected? In that way maybe this documentary is a parent’s worst nightmare…. (Hey Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, I think you did a great job, FYI.)
And selfish ponderings aside, I think there is real value in that sort of insight. It’s often been said that the best a generation can do is try and do better than the one that came before it. What’s so infuriating, and what No Small Matter is able to consistently point out, is that for all the trouble of our nation’s past, it seems that we may have had one good thing going, with the nuclear family and the emphasis on raising a child in a community. And while maybe it’s not time to reverse society, perhaps it’s time to try something new.
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