REVIEW: ‘Starting At Zero’ (2020) Imagines A Brighter Future for Early Childhood Education

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“Kammerer’s debut feature film provides a laser-focused look at the power of investing in our children.”

There is no shortage of documentaries about the many flaws of the American education system. Many films, including Teach Us All (2017) and American Promise (2013), have investigated the subject from various angles, often interested in the longstanding inequities hiding in plain sight. These films provide a look into a school system that affects millions of students across the country and, in the process, create the possibility of change; filmmaker Willa Kammerer clearly had this in mind when crafting Starting At Zero. This film explores early childhood education but rather than focusing on the issues, considers the benefits and solutions of dedicating attention and resources to Pre-K programs. Kammerer’s debut feature film provides a laser-focused, actionable look at the power of investing in our children.

Starting At Zero brings together the voices of policymakers, educators, academics, business leaders, pediatricians and, to a lesser extent, parents and children. The first half of the film examines the latest developmental brain science and research, outlining the impact that early education can have on children’s lives. Five current and past governors with a track record of championing early childhood education weigh in, providing insight into the need for change. From there, the film uses Alabama as a case study, delving into their #1 nationally ranked state Pre-K program. Ultimately, Starting At Zero functions as an argument for high-quality early childhood education nationwide. It presents the research, benefits and even provides a model for what adjustments need to be made to the system. It stresses the importance of these needs, laying out the facts and making a clear call for change.

A woman holds a baby in her arms and plays with her.
Image courtesy of Firestarter Interactive

While Starting At Zero certainly communicates the importance of Pre-K programs, the film often feels detached from the emotional aspect that should root its work: the children. While the filmmakers include beautiful footage of children interacting with one another in the classroom and even features a few interviews where the kids talk about their favorite aspects of school, this is only a small section of the film. Unfortunately, this means that those interviews and a few moments with parents are the only concrete insight we get into the effects of these Pre-K programs, beyond the graphs and the numbers. Unlike a typical documentary about school systems, Starting At Zero is not interested in storytelling. Instead, the film focuses on facts and figures, hoping for an audience of policymakers like those included in the documentary itself. This also explains Kammerer’s decision not to delve into the specifics of the issues that plague the early childhood education system. The film has no desire to paint a portrait of the current system nor to expose its flaws; actionable solutions are the sole focus. While this certainly keeps the film focused on its primary argument, this approach feels limiting. Surely, there are nuances to how early childhood schooling functions? Based on the ranking, Alabama is clearly the gold standard, but certainly not the only model Pre-K systems: what benefits do the alternatives provide? What competition does Alabama have for 1st place? The film leaves you wondering about the nuances its 63 minutes run-time could not tackle and its disinterest in doing so is frustrating.

Even so, Kammerer’s film is commendable in its dedication to a clear message: policymakers must take action to improve the early childhood education system. To not do so would be irresponsible and would ultimately hurt us all in the end. Starting At Zero stresses how essential the early years of education can be and provides a sort of crash course into the science behind this point. It serves as a demand for collective action, crafted to cater to those most in a position to effect change. You walk away understanding that when it comes to education, the decisions made at the ground level are guaranteed to have a tremendous impact.

Director: Willa Kammerer

Producers: Alan Hammerman, Lauren Gaffney, Annie Glidden, The Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation

Available: Upcoming screenings can be found here