There is such a dire need to expose the utter failure of abstinence-only education that my hopes were high for the P.O.V. series documentary The Education of Shelby Knox, which airs twice this week on WMFE-TV (curiously, at times that are not conducive to capturing teen viewers). There simply can't be enough discussion of the scientifically erroneous and Constitution-challenging policies that the Bush administration has dropped like a ton of bricks on the heads of our teens nationwide. But the muddled focus of this profile of 15-year-old Shelby Knox eschews facts from credible sources in favor of histrionics, such that viewers sitting on either side of the fence are not likely to feel any change in their own point of view.
As the program begins, Knox's lively narration tells us that only two things are for sure in the Longhorn hellhole of Lubbock: that God loves you and you're going to hell, and that sex is evil and will kill you. That's our introduction to this fiercely determined if a bit high-strung and power-hungry activist, who is hell-bent on striking down her school's sex education guidelines. She attempts to publicly connect two dots: the fact that Lubbock has the highest rate of teen pregnancy and STDs in the entire country (FYI, Orlando is not far behind); and the strict abstinence-only policy in the town's public schools that's supported in the extreme by the community.
Her strident views are seemingly contradicted by the fact that she herself has made a promise to God, her parents and the man she will one day marry to remain a virgin until her wedding day. (We watch a "True Love" ceremony in her church, as the blossoming young woman places a ring on her finger and makes a pledge about her personal sexuality to her parents. It's just too weird.) But if there's any power in this documentary, it's in showing that self-morality need not be corrupted by knowledge of sex.
The first half of the story is entertainingly propelled as Knox takes on the school, town officials and her own peers, and we're treated to an onslaught of so-horrible-you-have-to-laugh interview commentary drawn from a string of heart-of-Texas characters, most notably smarmy local pastor Ed Ainsworth. Always on the streets cruising for converts, Ainsworth takes a vile approach to ministry: There is no such thing as safe sex, he preaches. "You have been lied to, kids," he says, following up with a promise that they will become "physically, mentally, emotionally and financially" damaged by crossing the line.
The second half of the documentary loses momentum and drags on and on, as Knox repetitively tangles with the same people over the same issues, without any forward movement. It's not that the subject matter isn't sound, but ultimately Knox's own credibility is damaged by the filmmakers who follow her as she deviates from her sex-education mission to advocate for gay rights. And that's where it all falls apart. Whatever good producers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt brought to the table, they leave their audience with a clichéd message: Start talking about sex, and the next thing you know you're a loopy liberal, hanging out with queers.
P.O.V.: THE EDUCATION OF SHELBY KNOX
11 pm Tuesday, June 21
4 am Wednesday, June 22
WMFE-TV (Channel 24)