Ranging in age from toddlers to preteens, the orphans of the National Action Culture Association in Phnom Penh train daily in traditional Cambodian performing arts and rehearse an original production combining dance, melodrama, singing, and fighting.
Adam Pfleghaar and A. Todd Smith, directors of the astonishing Still I Strive, capture the children’s rehearsals, friendships, unguarded moments, and anticipation of their unlikely goal of performing for Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a Cambodian dance expert and sister to the king.
The kids are talented and charismatic in a real and profound way, not an abstract, “all children are precious and beautiful” way.
The filmmakers choose their best moments: performances, funny interactions, and expressions of hope. Pfleghaar and Smith also coax out their stories of abandonment, abuse, loss, and, ultimately, the redemptive stories in which they find their way to the NACA orphanage. That’s all great. But the directors elevate the picture to a level of emotional genius by filming the children’s play as a full-on cinematic adaptation, shot and edited with seriousness and polish.
This film-within-the-film is an epic tale of battles, forest chases, horror, and heroism. Its story of loss, triumph, and adventure maps exactly to the documentary’s focus and the vector of its story, and the directors intercut the two films, the thresholds and crises of both dovetailing into a brilliant, emotionally coherent whole.