Way less irritating than Oliver are the kidswho spout poetry in Louder Than a Bomb, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s debut documentary that follows four Chigago students from different schools competing in an annual high-school slam contest. Except for one kid, their stories are rather typical of high-schoolers from the wrong side of the track: broken homes, drug-addicted parents, bad behavior, growing up too fast. Poetry-as-savior may be eye-rolling. Their talent, however, is not.
Meet our protagonists: Lamar is a 19-year-old about whom we learn the least, except that he once did some things he regrets and helped lead his school, Steinmetz Academic Centre, to a slam championship the year before Louder Than a Bomb takes place, even though they “looked like we didn’t belong.” Nate is a self-described nerd whose strong vocabulary used to get him bullied, and whose single mom was an addict. Nova was shuttled between her mother and her irresponsible dad when she was a preteen, at least until she got sick of being a “wife and mother” to her father and decided to never go back. She admits she was once a very angry kid, even after she discovered her love of writing: When told that, despite her ability, she’d likely not make the slam team back when she was a freshman, she had a few colorful words for the coach. And Adam, who goes to a prep school, admits that he’s “always had opportunity, I always had privilege.” Indeed, his parents are genial and ridiculously supportive, even when his father jokes that there’s a “tremendous market” for slam poets.
Louder Than a Bomb introduces other members of these students’ teams as it shows their preparation leading up to the competition. Without fail, their devotion to the spoken word is astounding; one of the more painstaking writers justifies his obsession by telling his coach that “every line should be a jewel.” At one point, Steinmetz’s coach gives his team a talking-to, ready to kick out a few members who “disrespected him” by mouthing off the day before. Their apologies are sincere and pleading, and one even ends in tears. And these are the tough kids.
Ultimately, the slam is the thing. The competition is a pleasure to witness. Forget the navel-gazing, nihilistic faux-etry of your adolescence—these kids rhyme forcefully about topics like school shootings, caring for an ill relative, being Jewish. One four-person recitation of a poem called “Counting Graves” that muses on the drive-by murder of a child is tear-inducing. All are terrifically delivered, even when there’s a minor slip-up. That the audience erupts with applause after every reading may seem excessive, but these performers earn it.