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Movie Review

759: Boy Scouts of Harlem

A view of urban Boy Scouts as seen by a pair of them

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 20, 2010

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Harlem has Boy Scouts troops, one of them is 759. Jake Boritt and Justin Szlasa have made a genial documentary — “759: Boy Scouts of Harlem’’ — that follows Troop 759 to a camp in the rural New York hinterlands, where the expected activities are performed. The object is for the four scouts in the troop to work on becoming Eagle Scouts, the most elusive goal in scouting. They’re smart and, for the most part, interested in scouting.

Keith Dozier, a bright, rotund 11-year-old, occupies most of the film’s attention. He’s the most frustrated and seemingly least motivated of the troop (he’s new). The irony is that he comes from a family with a strong Scouting tradition. His father was a Boy Scout. And his grandparents are his current scoutmasters. But Dozier can’t swim. There are, however, many other activities, and while we see him performing some of them, it’s unclear which merit badge he’ll have earned if he finishes.

This is a long way of saying “759’’ is scant. The movie, commendably, doesn’t overdo the city boys-go-to-the-country angle, since there’s nothing novel about a trip to scouting camp. We don’t glean enough about most of the other kids’ home lives to determine whether the Boy Scouts is keeping them out of trouble, as the program does for a lot of kids. They’re just Scouts. The movie does, however, overdo the mournful gospel wailing on the soundtrack (“hoooo-ooooh’’) that moviemakers use to say, “Hey, we’re with black people!’’

Boritt and Szlasa manage to pinpoint an interesting problem with the Harlem scout program. Some of Dozier’s aunts and neighbors lament the lack of men in leadership roles. But that’s it. The movie has no thematic crux. It’s happy to look, but not terribly interesting in thinking beyond what it’s shown.

That’s not the same as calling the film dull. The boys have different personalities that come through, and the movie is content to sit around watching them. Boritt and Szlasa have talent. They’re refreshingly content to let the camera roll and see what they get. But the truth is they’re stuck with the material they have, which is often pretty basic: snatches of life around the camp, snatches of life at Keith’s house, conversations among the boys about what’s on their bookshelves and reading lists.

There are moments. Devon and KC have crushes on a pair of Russian girls who work in the mess hall — the movie tries out some nationalist Soviet-sounding choral music for those scenes. Those bits are funny. And a scene of Manny brushing KC’s hair is a great insight into the boys’ as-yet uninhibited intimacy. But there are too many good questions and potential conflicts raised: How, for instance, do Keith’s grandparents respond to what feels like his obligatory relationship to Scouting? Otherwise, as a collection of snapshots “759’’ takes on a kind of promotional air. It feels commissioned by the Boy Scouts of America.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

759: Boy Scouts of Harlem

Directed by: Jake Boritt and Justin Szlasa

At: Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 70 minutes

Unrated