For students in the Power Writers program at the South Bronx's Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation, poetry isn't just a mode of self-expression; it's a matter of self-defense. Instructor Roland Legiardi-Laura (who, along with his pupils, is among this doc's four credited directors) points to a list of vocab words and tells his students, "These are weapons." And "the tripod," as the tight-knit trio of students at the center of To Be Heard call themselves, could use some heavy artillery---they all come from uniformly tough backgrounds. Karina Sanchez, the eldest of seven children, compares bruises from maternal beatings in the halls with another classmate; Anthony Pittman, whose father is in prison on a drug charge, shows off fresh stitches from a confrontation with a homeless man. The group's motto is "If you don't learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you," but it's clear they're learning to author their own destinies as well.
Spanning four years, To Be Heard has a large enough scope to map its subjects' rocky road to reinvention, concentrating on various bumps along the way. There's a particularly crushing cut from a moment of triumph to a courtroom three months later, a harsh reminder that there are systems as invested in these kids' failure as they are in their success. Whether due to circumspection or a simply the inability to be in the right place at the right time, the movie is studded with chronological gaps that disrupt its push toward emotional catharsis. But the change in the young poets' affect is so plain, you can almost fill in the details yourself.
Follow Sam Adams on Twitter: @SamuelAAdams