Judge Jennifer Malkowski thinks it must be hard to grow up in Lubbock, Texas, and be as deeply cool as the outspoken Shelby Knox.
"I think some people never get their head out of the Bible to look at the real world. But I think that God wants you to question and God wants you to do more than just blindly be a follower. Because He can't use blind followers. But He can use people like me."—Shelby Knox
Shelby Knox is an activist who believes in comprehensive sex education in schools and wants to fight for those programs. As this documentary begins, she has two major factors working against her: she's a minor and, far more importantly, she lives in Lubbock, Texas. Directors Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt clue us in to what Lubbock might be like with the following quotation from musician Butch Hancock that's scrawled across the screen to open the film:
"Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: one is that God loves you and you're going to burn in hell; the other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on Earth and you should save it for someone you love."
This brilliantly phrased summation of Shelby's town prepares us for what is going to be an uphill battle, but the stakes in Lubbock are high: it has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STD contraction in the country, largely, the film argues, because of abstinence-only sex education.
We've all seen documentaries about heroic activists fighting valiantly against the powerful forces of any-given-evil, but what makes The Education of Shelby Knox so different and so fascinating is that Shelby herself really straddles the two (often) opposing worlds of liberal activism and the Christian faith. She is both a committed pledge at True Love Waits, vowing to abstain from sex before marriage, and she is a hard-working crusader fighting for comprehensive sex education in schools. She is a devout Christian and an ally to the persecuted gay-straight alliance that has been banned from her school. Taking the best lessons she can find from each side of these debates, this high-school sophomore exemplifies the kind of thoughtful and questioning, yet passionate, approach to politics and morality that could provide a real education to all of us on either side of our red-state/blue-state war.
This documentary chronicles Shelby's last three years in high school, beginning with her work with the Lubbock Youth Commission advocating better sex ed in schools. Early on, we meet one of her most prominent rivals: Ed Ainsworth, who runs True Love Waits lecture-meetings that sign teens up for a no-sex-till-marriage pledge (awkwardly sealed with a ring put on their fingers by their parents—creepy). The interesting tension here is that Shelby pledged with Ed and that she seriously talks with him about her sometimes-conflicting faith and politics, but she also firmly disagrees with his methods of distorting facts and reliance on scare tactics. Ed is the kind of guy who takes his message to the streets—or in this case, an empty parking lot where the kids hang out on Friday nights (as one teen claims, affirmed by this parking-lot hangout, "the only thing there is to do in Lubbock is have sex"). Ed even confronts a group of gay teens, plus Shelby, there one night and preaches to them about their sinful lifestyles. Shelby pipes up in their defense and the conversation turns to the perennial topic of sex ed. Shelby complains that the information teens need is not available to them in school, to which Ed responds:
Ed: "If you don't like it, go to a private school. If you don't like
it, go to a charter school. If you don't like it, get your GED."
This is the type of no-nonsense, bold stance that characterizes Shelby's interactions with Ed and every other condescending adult male who opposes her. By golly, it is refreshing.
Just as interesting as her confrontations with Ed is her relationship with her parents. As lifelong Republicans and Christians, Mama and Papa Knox are wary of their daughter's intense associations with sex educators who help teens practice putting condoms onto dildos and flamboyant homosexual high schoolers suing the school district for the right to form a gay-straight alliance. Her baffled and somewhat weary father exclaims, "When I was 17 years old, I don't think I knew who was president or cared." Her parents want her to keep her priorities straight—"God, family, country; in that order." The amazing thing, though, is that when Shelby stays firm to these liberal causes, her parents support her with the same love and pride that they display when she signs up for True Love Waits. As her mom explains, "I'm more proud that she's committed to abstinence and going through True Love Waits at church and all that, but I'm also glad that she can see that that's not reality." Instead of forbidding her to champion causes they don't approve of, her parents sit down with her and really talk about it until they are sure that she is making an informed, responsible decision, then they give her their support. It must be incredibly difficult to have radically different beliefs from your parents while still living at home with them, but parents like Mr. and Mrs. Knox make it a workable situation.
Late in the film, Shelby's budding friendship with the gay-straight alliance kids leads her into Ed's office for a little biblical Q&A session:
Shelby: "But there's something in me that doesn't disapprove. I don't
know why. Even though I've been taught that homosexuality is a sin."
It is typical of Ed (and most homophobes) to offer these tired, simplistic defenses of their intolerant, hateful attitudes. Fortunately, it is also typical of Shelby not to swallow these lines. She is always questioning, unwilling to accept the kind of passive brainwashing that Ed subscribes to. His advice that she "make a choice" feels like simple avoidance of her questions, but choose she does. When the Rev. Fred Phelps blows into town with his merry band of "God Hates Fags" protesters (helping to put the "hate" back into "hate crime" for years now), Shelby tells her parents that she's decided to go to the counter-protest with her gay friends. Looking a little bit woozy, her Mom asks if she can come, too, to look out for Shelby. Shelby is delighted and her Mom teases her that she will hide her daughter behind her sign if the TV cameras come near her. She adds cheerfully, "My sign's going to say, 'We're not gay!'" When they arrive, Shelby's sign reads, "God loves everyone, even these crazies." In her voiceover, Shelby closes the film with words almost as eloquent as Hancock's words which opened it:
"I think some people never get their head out of the Bible to look at the real world, but I think that God wants you to question and God wants you to do more than just blindly be a follower. Because He can't use blind followers. But He can use people like me."
The Education of Shelby Knox looks and sounds like your typical digital video documentary, and the transfer here is fine. Visually, it doesn't have a lot to work with in the aesthetically unpleasing town of Lubbock, but the directors get in some artful and fun moments. My favorite of the latter is the shot of Shelby's dog humping a fluffy Winnie the Pooh slipper as Shelby carefully pronounces the word "mas-tur-ba-tion" to her little brother on the soundtrack. The only special feature here is a "bonus featurette" that is basically one deleted scene of Shelby visiting a pregnant teen and a couple of brief sound bites from the two directors. The whole thing totals less than five minutes, but this type of release does not necessitate a ton of extras, in my opinion. This is a great documentary that most of us didn't catch on PBS's Point of View when it ran there in the summer of 2005, so I'm just happy that the film itself made it to DVD in Docurama's always-capable hands.
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