“To the End” begins with the following quote: “The old world is dying, and the new world cannot quite be born. In the meantime, all kinds of dreadful things are happening.” Though these words may sound to many as if they were expressed yesterday, they’re from Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who wrote them in 1930.
Gramsci studied the ways in which political elites exploited ideology to institutionalize and retain power, which makes him a particularly apt touchstone for filmmaker Rachel Lears. Lears has come to specialize in verité documentaries about young and disenfranchised activists, motivated against long odds to challenge the establishment. Her last film, the often-thrilling “Knock Down the House,” followed the 2018 campaigns of four aspiring congressional representatives, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The latter is also featured in “To the End,” which tracks the anxieties and efforts of several young advocates as they aim to focus attention toward the climate crisis and a Green New Deal.
Because Ocasio-Cortez appears once again, it’s tempting to see Lears’ new film as a sort of sequel to the last one. It’s not an entirely flattering comparison, as the former was more focused and thus more viscerally impactful. But both have a similar sense of built-in urgency; her target viewers are likely to come to this movie feeling that there is just as much at stake.
While “Knock Down the House” provided us with some fascinating portraits that might have interested even those averse to politics, “To the End” is a little less precise. Over the span of four years, Lears introduces us to Varshini Prakash, Alexandra Rojas and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, and all bring evident passion to their endeavors as climate activists. But none quite centers the screen as Ocasio-Cortez can, which leaves us with a diffuse and familiar narrative about advocacy in general.
Of course, eco-activism is a subject that can support any number of documentaries, as long as it remains necessary. (And as this movie makes abundantly clear, movies like this will be needed indefinitely.) It helps that Lear contextualizes each participant’s personal connection to the cause, thoughtfully if rapidly situating it within historic, economic, and political frameworks.
And certainly, there are several compelling moments throughout the years of work Lear has captured here. (She also served as DP, and the film’s immediate, on-the-ground feel adds to its independent sensibility.) Perhaps most notably, she makes the most of a stunning turnaround that occurred after the film premiered at Sundance, with the lead-up to this summer’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Often, though, we see similar scenarios revisited as she sets her camera up within a group of staffers or students who try every means possible to convince elders in power to change their minds, to act, to save us all. During these scenes, and there are many, it’s hard to shake the feeling that her movie is preaching directly to the choir.
But perhaps, ultimately, that’s where its greatest power lies: in spurring the like-minded into action. One of the subjects of “To the End” notes that she wants to “speak things into existence.” It’s a painfully poignant wish, representative of the blend of optimism, desperation, and determination that powers the entire film.
“To the End” opens in US theaters Dec. 9 via Roadside Attractions.