'At The Ready' Review: High School Police Recruitment Documentary Lends Humanity To A Fraught Subject [Sundance 2021]

Wearing bulky Kevlar vests and bulletproof helmets, a squadron of law enforcement personnel prepare to enter a residence. It's an image that is primed to make one automatically raises one's hackles — given the sociopolitical landscape in the past 10, 20 years, we know exactly how this scene will play out. But then you notice how young they all are. Sporting braces and adolescent acne underneath their paramilitary equipment, the mostly Mexican-American teenagers of Horizon High School are participating in simulations of high-stress policing situations as part of their school's law enforcement club — one of the many popular law enforcement clubs in the region that puts them on a fast-track to getting a job at Border Patrol. See, Horizon High School lies about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, home to one of the country's largest immigrant populations — and to one of the region's largest law enforcement education programs.

Maisie Crow's illuminating documentary At The Ready explores the surprisingly prolific school-to-Border-Patrol pipeline that has become a staple of large swaths of Texas high schools. At the focus is Horizon High School's Criminal Justice Club, where teens train for no-knock drug raids, hostage negotiations, and active shooter scenarios in their school's hallways after hours, as fellow students ignore or gawk at them. The sight is more than a little alarming — the hallowed halls of education being used as a simulated battleground for one of the most hot button political issues of today, with mostly Mexican-American teenagers holding the (plastic) guns, at that.

But the club members are more than just playing at being soldier. The three students of the law enforcement club that Crow's film follows — Cristina, whose father supports her in her dreams of joining Border Patrol so that she'll have a better paying job than he ever did; Cesar, whose father was deported for dealing drugs; Mason, a trans teen who turns to the club for support from her unhappy home life — all see their club members and teachers as family.

In closely following Cristina, Cesar, and Mason, who all undergo their own personal and political struggles in the film as it builds up to the fateful 2018 Texas Senate election that pitted establishment Republican Senator Ted Cruz against up-and-comer Democrat Beto O'Rourke, At The Ready humanizes a topic deeply lacking humanity. But Crow's camera never sentimentalizes, letting Cristina, Cesar, and Mason's stories play out naturally, with her eight camera operators adopting a fly-on-the-wall approach, only occasionally letting the teens address the camera with their thoughts in what often feel like stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Crow deploys telephoto lenses to keep tight close-ups on the students too, while they carry out their raid simulations and interact with their teachers (all former police officers or Border Patrol agents).

It's this rigidly journalistic approach that works both in favor and against the film. At The Ready doles out many eye-opening statistics — that more than 900 schools in Texas offer this kind of law enforcement education, that a job in Border Patrol is one of the few careers available to low-income Texans with wages equal to the national average — which paint a sweeping picture of the pervasive culture of policing in our nation, and how these teens really have no other option. And Crow's fly-on-the-wall approach allows her camera to capture moments of genuine warmth and affection between Mason and his club teachers, who offer him the familial support he's always been craving, or the tension between Cesar and his father, whose actions deeply disappointed him. Cristina, perhaps the most naively enthusiastic about her career in border patrol, also gets moments of pathos when she reckons with the viral video of ICE agents who separate migrant children from their parents and put them in cages.

And yet, it feels like there are pieces missing amid the broader picture that At The Ready portrays, in the specific stories of Mason, Cesar, and Cristina. Mason's segment offers the clearest emotional throughline of the film, as he begins to doubt the jingoistic attitude that he and his club members had adopted as they debate President Trump's statement about building a wall on the Mexico border; those doubts further deepening as his own exploration of his identity sees him fear the loss of the fragile support system he had found in the club. And while the film's build-up to the 2018 election night provides a great emotional climax — both Mason and Cristina attending Beto's rally when he loses the election — it feels like At The Ready could have benefited from Crow focusing on the trees as much as the forest.

But the subject of At The Ready — Mexican-American teens on a fast-track to jobs at Border Patrol — makes the documentary an urgent and timely watch that deftly tackles a hot-button topic with the humanity it sorely needed.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10