‘We are all on our path to University’ is really not so inspirational a mantra as the teacher who announces it to a group of troubled eleven year olds towards the start of H is for Harry believes. Neither is it revolutionary. In fact, the word reductive springs to mind. Not that directors Edward Owles and Jamie Taylor particularly pass comment. Theirs is a nicely made little feature – cutely produced and warm to the core – but frustrates as a documentary. Without the focus of a critical eye or narrative voice, the film ambles without real cause or impact.
Released to coincide with World Book Day, H is for Harry followed its London Film Festival debut with a screening for government officials. It’s not quite clear what is hoped for by this. Stark statistics expose the severe lacking in the education of the young white working class – one in five of whom cannot read well by secondary school – but this isn’t new information. A motivational school setting, meanwhile, proposes an alternative approach to teaching but one that neither feels feasible nor appears all that successful. This is South London’s Reach Academy, a school in which jargon has replaced actual conversation and where grades have turned around for many of its deprived intake. Whether you agree with an approach to education that has children trained directly for GCSE success from their very first year or not, the school’s pupils certainly appear to respond well to more interactive learning and persistent encouragement.
Whereas Reach originally opened its doors for Owles and Taylor to comprehensively explore their school, the camera quickly homes in on Harry, a chirpy lad from a broken home. As Harry arrives at the school – ferried by his deeply endearing father, who appears to have written his own life off – he brings with him the revelation of illiteracy. As excuses go for not doing your homework, it’s a killer but utterly without whimsy. This is the situation far more in the UK find themselves in than one might think. If you’re expecting H is for Harry to see its titular hero embark on a voyage to total turnaround – as so many Channel 4 documentaries do – you’re in for a realist grounding. Harry’s grandfather was illiterate and his father remains so. When asked what he thinks he will be doing by the time he’s twenty-five, the young hopeful replies ‘trying to stay alive’.
Things aren’t all doom and gloom in the film of course. A ten out of ten spelling test victory gifts Harry’s journey a genuine fist pump moment and there’s hilarity in the capturing of lines that only a child could produce: ‘Shakespeare’s so confusing! Why couldn’t he have written in English?’ On these occasions, at least, Owles and Taylor excel in shooting some gorgeously indulgent scenes of purest childhood, perfectly framing an epoch of life that absolutely strikes a chord. The film’s high point comes as kids wedged comfortably up a tree discus everything from Brexit to VAT. Given the opportunity for self expression, you really cannot best the vocalised imagination of a child. To that end, H is for Harry is a joyous and uplifting delight.
With more purpose – and a stronger sense of focus – H is for Harry could well have proved revelatory. As it stands, this is far too passive material to resonate beyond the credits. It’s well made and of solely good intentions but a little on the blunt side.