The story told in “For Ahkeem,” a stark documentary portrait of a troubled teenager struggling to redirect her life, unfolds in the months before and after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Set in an insular and run-down pocket of nearby St. Louis, the film watches its subjects as they watch TV news reports about the shooting, and its subsequent protests, with a combined sense of grief and resignation.
That backdrop is just a blip in a series of bad news for the film’s subjects: 17-year-old Daje Shelton and her boyfriend, Antonio. As the film opens, Daje has gotten in trouble for fighting: A judge orders her to attend a school he has set up to keep minors out of jail. But while she’s excited about the prospect of graduating and going to college, those things remain abstract for her, never quite snapping into focus despite — or perhaps because of — Daje’s keen awareness of the obstacles that lie in front of her and the systemic oppression that surrounds her.
In a subtly heartbreaking moment, Daje walks home with friends, alternately singing and humming the theme from “Dawson’s Creek” — which includes the line “I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over.” Antonio — who first catches Daje’s eye while passing through the school’s metal detector with swagger — sees boundless potential in her, while predicting that his own life will be short.
With a couple of exceptions, filmmakers Landon Van Soest and Jeremy S. Levine shoot in a cinéma-vérité style, including several close-ups that call attention to their proximity to the film’s subjects and voice-over narration by Daje — a technique more commonly seen in fiction than nonfiction — that acts as a kind of audio diary, lending the film a bleak, poetic beauty. (The title “For Ahkeem” refers to Daje’s child.)
Yet the film raises some ethical questions.
The events it depicts with such intimacy, which include Daje’s pregnancy and Antonio’s arrest (while a passenger in a car that turns out to be stolen) occur with frustrating predictability, reinforcing destructive stereotypes. Could not the filmmakers, both savvy Emmy winners, have posted Antonio’s $500 bond, connected him with a service for legal aid, or at least warned him against pleading guilty to a felony, which would — even without jail time — affect his employment prospects?
One school of thought holds that nonfiction filmmakers should never interfere in their subject’s lives, but perhaps that rule should be re-examined. In a powerful subsequent scene, Antonio is rejected from a training program that would have helped him get a construction job, because he’s now a felon. The story that is told here, with such heartbreaking clarity, is an important one, but it is hard to watch.
The vicious-cycle narrative is familiar, but “For Ahkeem” comes uncomfortably close at times to crossing the line between shining a light on a problem and exploiting one, despite the filmmakers’ good intentions.
Starring Daje Shelton. Directed by Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine.
Unrated but contains mature thematic material and coarse language. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Bottom line: Familiar narrative told with heartbreaking clarity