Review: Spring Valley | SXSW 2021

Score: B+

Director: Garrett Zevgetis

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rated: NR

We all saw that horrifying video. A police officer arrives at a classroom. He flips a student's desk, then forcibly removes her. But what happened after? And how does this incident reveal even more horrifying realities about law enforcement and racism in South Carolina? Spring Valley explores all that, but occasionally goes too wide.

Both the student who was assaulted and the student who filmed the incident were charged with "disturbing school," a vague and archaic law that was rewritten in the 1960s to punish students protesting for civil rights. Unsurprisingly, this law and arrests made in schools disproportionately affect Black students.

But some people refuse to see it that way, like safety resource office Ben Fields, who made the arrest and assaulted the student. Director Garrett Zevgetis gives Fields ample opportunities to apologize and share his point of view. But every time he opens his mouth, he reveals his ignorance, his bias, and his penchant for playing the victim. As one activist who regularly meets with him puts it, he can't see the difference between accountability and blame. A card at the end revealing where he ended up is one of the most disturbing moments in a film this year.

Still, there are some moments of hope. Seeing the students who were mistreated by the system succeed, and activists rally to get police out of schools, means the situation isn't completely bleak.

Crucially, Zevgetis puts the incident in context of South Carolina's racial issues, as well as the continuum of police violence that's seen increased attention in the last decade thanks to the use of cell phone video. But the film makes one misstep, in trying to connect the suffering of African-Americans to the depleted geography around Columbia, South Carolina. Seeing images of former rice paddies tended to by slaves is critical for the film's thesis, but trying to pull in hurricane-battered structures and thorny bushes is one thread too many.

Spring Valley can often be an infuriating watch, as people spout off that a grown man flipping and dragging a child out of a classroom is "just doing his job" and the fault of the student. But the filmmaker gives everyone their chance to speak, making this one of the most well-rounded and vital documentaries in recent years.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.