Credit: Sundance Institute
by Morris Yang Featured Film Horizon Line

At the Ready | Maisie Crow

October 21, 2021

At the Ready engaged necessary discourse, but unfortunately leaves its most fertile sites for interrogation unexplored.

In light of the surging unpopularity of its subject matter, Maisie Crow’s sophomore documentary may come across as contentious and provocative in certain respects. Under the Trump administration, part of whose political mandate lay in tougher immigration laws, the U.S. border with Mexico was fortified with a wall; detainment of its illegal crossers, already a controversial feature under Obama, generated even greater public outcry. Within this context and that of more recent social justice movements against police brutality, it is, therefore, a bit of a novelty to behold a portrait of these very institutions much-reviled by liberal America. At the Ready is situated in the thick of action: El Paso, Texas, just ten miles from the border, and home to the country’s largest Mexican diaspora. Given its proximity to the threats of smuggling and illegal immigration, the city also boasts a robust police-education network, which includes drug enforcement and border patrol. The political significance of these conflicting identities is more than symbolic — the lives of the city’s inhabitants are thoroughly enveloped within them.

The film follows three Mexican-American teenagers and members of their high school’s Criminal Justice Club: Cristina, already graduated and on her way to a career in Border Patrol; Cesar, whose estranged father was himself arrested and imprisoned for drug trafficking; and Kassy (now Mason, since his coming out as transgender, which is noted in the film’s credits), the club’s commander. They hail from comparatively lower socio-economic backgrounds, so a job in law enforcement promises both financial security and a chance at a middle-class lifestyle. At school, their training comprises shooting exercises, search-and-seizure procedures, as well as hostage negotiations; in preparing for a national law enforcement competition and subsequently better job prospects, the trio must come to terms with the dissonance between their personal values and the occupation’s systemic realities.

Yet, for all its outward similarities with Steve McQueen’s deeply invigorating Red, White and Blue (about a black policeman’s struggle against the British police’s institutional racism), At the Ready lacks critical incisiveness; Crow seems content with presenting the inherent dilemmas her characters reckon with, without articulating their internal psychological developments. The film banks on pre-existing, politically polarized tensions — between ethnicity and employment, policing and permissive — to engender sympathy, and the seemingly refreshing ideological heterogeneity within a younger generation of enforcement agents belies its disappointing lack of insight. Cristina’s aversion to conservative strong-arming, for instance, merely renders her decision to follow through with her career puzzling (at least in the absence of any more material exploration); while Mason’s sexual orientation, which Crow devotes significant screen-time to, appears mostly tangential to At the Ready’s main thrusts. Though more centered around bringing criminals to justice than justly bringing them in, “Criminal Justice” swiftly gives way to the latter, working through the motions of talking-head discussions and distanced family profiles while leaving the most fertile sites for interrogation — in particular issues of racial and sexual dynamics within law enforcement — unexplored. At the Ready, while palatable, has little appetite for contesting or provoking debate.

Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.