“Knock Down the House” is a documentary following the political campaigns of four underdog female political candidates. The era of Trump and the increasingly polarized political climate is fairly black and white; people and media are quick to pick sides. But “Knock Down the House” is different, choosing a more nonpartisan portrayal of the women running for Congress in 2018. Centering on the campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin, “Knock Down the House” is a depiction of women from different backgrounds, with one common goal: assuring that the concerns of their communities are finally acknowledged.
The film is largely centered on AOC, a 27-year-old bartender turned political phenomenon. AOC ran a grueling but successful campaign against Joseph Crowley, a Democratic representative who had been in power for 14 years. The film doesn’t provide too much context for the campaigns other than one screen of text informing the viewer of the unprecedented amount of women and people of color who ran for Congress in 2018. The minimal set up works well for the film; it wasn’t concerned with providing insight as to why so many new candidates had emerged or the political ramifications, choosing instead to let the candidates’ background and character tell their story. AOC in particular (as the unofficial, but obvious star of the documentary) is humanized by showing her at her most vulnerable, whether it is barefaced in front of a mirror or dragging along a huge bucket of ice at her minimum-wage job.
Despite focusing on Ocasio-Cortez, the film fluidly moves from candidate to candidate, introducing Swearengin, who ran against incumbent Joe Manchin in West Virginia, as she makes an impassioned speech before delving into her background. Swearengin is the opposite of AOC, soft-spoken in contrast to AOC’s energy and volume. However this difference belies similarities between the candidates, and the film does an admirable job of conveying the message of representation and activism that marks these campaigns.
Director Rachel Lears’ showcases the candidates’ hard work and determination to beat their incumbent opponents by allowing each person to speak on their motivations to run. Vilela, especially, delivers an emotional account against a backdrop of family pictures and videos as she recounts the delays in care and eventual death of her 22-year-old daughter due to her lack of health insurance. The editing is again minimal, but it allows the narrative to stand out and have a greater impact than ostentatious music and over-the-top tears would.
The filmmakers do an excellent job of ensuring that the film is palatable enough for audiences who are not super invested in politics, deciding instead to highlight the work, team and woman behind each campaign. “Knock Down the House” embodies a comprehensive background story for AOC, who has proven to be a powerful presence. It manages to structure her narrative in a way that looks beyond her assertive tweets and into her personal motivations. Her story works in conjunction with the other narratives to create an empowering and emotional film that is based on one thing: hope for a better future. Even politically uninterested viewers might find themselves inspired by the resolve of the cast.
Verdict: Regardless of your political affiliation or whether you are a diehard supporter or opponent of the now-famous Ocasio-Cortez, “Knock Down the House” offers a unique insight into the difficult, exhausting work of political campaigns. The documentary presents a heartfelt take on the winners and losers of the 2018 Congressional elections, in an inspiring way that is refreshingly nonpartisan.