True/False 2019: Knock Down the House

Rachel Lears' documentary follows four women running for Congress in the midterm elections of 2018, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Film Review by Kelli Weston | 09 Mar 2019
  • Knock Down the House
Film title: Knock Down the House
Director: Rachel Lears
Starring: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Amy Vilela, Paula Jean Swearengin

Rachel Lears’s documentary Knock Down the House has somewhat unofficially come to be known as 'the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez movie', and it delivers on that promise, both to its success and its detriment.

The film follows four women who ran for Congress in the 2018 midterm elections: Ocasio-Cortez, from New York; Amy Vilela of Nevada; Cori Bush in Missouri; and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia. Ocasio-Cortez makes the only successful bid, and perhaps that is why Lears spends so much more time with the deeply charismatic young representative. But for a film that so insistently telegraphs its investment in inclusivity and diversity, Knock Down the House never really makes a cogent argument as to why it leaves so little space for Vilela, Bush, and Swearengin. Vilela fares only a little better than the others. She and Ocasio-Cortez both mourn someone dear to them, and their stories give the film unexpected emotional depth.

As a film, Knock Down the House is both stylistically and substantively uncomplicated. For the most part, this is a wise choice from Lears. Her heroines mostly face “establishment” politicians and the director knows what their collective endeavour represents to the scores of women watching: hope, possibility, a tale as old and relentlessly satisfying as David and Goliath.

One moment exquisitely embodies the film’s highest ambitions and how it fails them: Ocasio-Cortez, preparing for a debate with ten-term Democrat incumbent Joe Crowley, stretches her arms and croons, “Take up space. Take up space.” Through her, the film laments the added layers of thankless strategy demanded of women politicians (the film opens with Ocasio-Cortez applying makeup). At the same time, it does not quite manage a thorough interrogation of a system where Ocasio-Cortez is both wondrously exceptional and in other ways, the likeliest and best-suited to ascend to a space so frequently denied other women. Knock Down the House aims for the easier work of honoring the process, the step forward, and if that is not always rewarding, sometimes it is enough.

Knock Down the House screened at True/False 2019