“Active Shooter at 12! Hostage negotiation at 1:30! Drug raid at 2:30,” hollers an authoritative voice in a sun-baked concrete yard. The retired police officer who announces this schedule at the start of “At the Ready,” Maisie Crow’s sobering documentary about a community of kids growing up on the Mexican border, isn’t at a professional police school or military facility. And yet, he addresses neat rows of individuals dressed in military gear — all teenagers, attending an unusual extracurricular training program at El Paso’s Horizon High School, seeking eventual employment in the law enforcement field in the near future. What follows this startling scene is a revealing look at several of these youngsters at a defining moment in their lives, as they learn to navigate the intersection of their identities, career goals and evolving perspectives on the country’s ideological realities.
An unsettling, often tender and thoroughly well-timed film, “At the Ready” arrives in a political climate of transition when many of the issues tackled by Crow — like the militarization of the police forces at the border — will be changing hands under a new administration. “At the Ready” takes a closer look at the unsound foundation the new government will be inheriting, as well as the consciousness the film’s three central Mexican-American teenagers gradually evolve as they move forward in their criminal justice program. In a way, Crow’s documentary could be this year’s “Boys State,” a vital film at a time of “Abolish ICE” and “Defund the Police” debates that urgently deserves to meet nationwide eyeballs beyond the festival circuit.
One of the three subjects Crow focuses on is the recent graduate Cristina, living with her tight-knit, supportive family and drawn to both doing good in her community and the economic security a career in law enforcement could bring. Her kindly father, an immigrant who believes in the viability of the American dream, reminds her that he only reached the starting salary of a border patrol officer a handful of years ago in his own line of work. But in the early moments of the film, even Cristina’s dad is supportive of the border squads, many of them Latinos. Many officers, he states, do the right thing for their people and protect the lives of vulnerable immigrants despite being labeled as racists unfairly.
Then there is Cesar, who leads a quiet life with his single mother and younger brother. A mellow teen with high-minded ambitions in his chosen path, he gives the club his all, while trying to maintain a meaningful relationship with his deported father across the Mexican border. In one of the most touching moments of the film, Cesar faces the camera in tears with mounting pain, recalling his dad’s drug smuggling days and the complications brought by his eventual arrest. The last subject of Crow’s main trio is the recently elected program commander Mason, known as Kassy in the film, who came out as transgender after the making of the documentary. The political heart and soul of “At the Ready,” Mason mostly keeps his progressive ideas to himself in crowds, but shares them with Crow’s camera privately later on. Not out to his hardworking (and often absent) single father and easily the most politically conscious of the kids, Mason braves a lonesome life with his truck driver dad gone most of the time, enjoying the perks of his solitude on the one hand, but treating the after-school club as his substitute family on the other.
As we spend more time with all three, it becomes clear that all these kids are partly driven by the idea of financial stability in a future paved with unknowns for them. Under the guidance of their retired-police-officer teachers — with the compassionate and approachable Ms. Weaver and the stricter and openly conservative Mr. Guerra nabbing the majority of screen time — Cristina, Cesar and Mason divide their efforts between schoolwork and the law enforcement club, until the 2018 controversy about the separation of children from their families at the border surfaces. Parsing the events and gravitating towards Beto O’Rourke during his U.S. Senate run as a result, Mason swiftly grasps the systemic dehumanization of immigrants in public discourse. Similarly distraught and awakened about the damaging impact their future jobs might have on the dreams of their community, Cristina and Cesar also grow unenthusiastic toward the ambitions they once possessed.
Perhaps it all sounds a bit manufactured when summarized thus, but what makes “At the Ready” truly worthwhile is Crow’s resolve to remain objective amid these developments, ultimately allowing them to run their natural course without preachy interference on her part. (Clean and coherent editing by Nina Vizcarrondo and Austin Reedy do some of the heavy-lifting.) Like she did in “Jackson,” her abortion-themed documentary from 2016, the filmmaker tackles a complex topic with unprecedented and thoughtfully utilized access to her subjects. Also the cinematographer here, she mostly films her characters from an objective distance without sacrificing the authenticity of her settings, be it an intimate family kitchen or a generic school corridor. Meanwhile, she captures the unique geographic textures, locales and colors of the El Paso region skillfully, honoring her home state’s visual beauty through affectionately filmed daytime and nighttime vistas.
While Mason, Cristina and Cesar all decisively start the next chapter of their lives with a renewed set of priorities, the aftermath of “At the Ready,” in which a bunch of young teens run around in bulletproof vests with plastic guns, is a rather distressing one. In a late-arriving scene, one of the brave-faced teachers heartrendingly breaks down in tears, confessing his remorse about putting his children through the dangers of his career as a cop. Audiences leave “At the Ready” with a stinging pain and spiritual discomfort on the heels of this astonishingly honest moment, wondering how many of the kids he influences will feel the impulsive rush of power and follow in his regretful steps as a result.