Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a largely unknown, 28-year-old bartender/waitress from New York, is hauling a bucket of ice to replenish the supply behind the bar.
“They call it ‘working class’ for a reason,” she says. “You are working nonstop.”
The whip-smart, dedicated, industrious and charismatic Ocasio-Cortez is the unquestioned star of the stirring and inspirational documentary “Knock Down the House,” in which the talented director Rachel Lears tracked four grass-roots candidates for office, all women, in the 2018 midterm elections.
Progressive challengers Cori Bush, Amy Vilela and Paula Jean Swearingen have equally compelling stories to tell, and they get their share of camera time — but it’s AOC who has the lead, AOC who has the underdog story straight out of a “Rocky” movie.
And one of the cool things about the documentary is the chance to eavesdrop on Ocasio-Cortez’s life BEFORE she was catapulted into the national spotlight, before she became an object of obsession for many conservatives in the media and in politics, before she showed great promise in her first few months in office.
Before she became a star.
In “Knock Down the House,” AOC is still working at the bar. She stands on the street corner with her little niece on chilly days, handing out flyers, or at least trying to hand out flyers. (“For every 10 rejections you get one acceptance,” she cheerily tells her niece. “And that’s how you win.”) She knocks on doors, she holds meetings in living rooms and gyms. In her tiny apartment, she goes through paperwork and shares her doubts and dreams with her supportive partner, Riley Roberts.
AOC’s opponent, Joe Crowley, is one of the most powerful Democratic members of Congress and hasn’t even been challenged in a primary since 2004. He has a certain slightly arrogant charm. (If we’re casting the movie, let’s put Kelsey Grammer in the role.)
Crowley will have an early 35-point lead in the polls. He will outspend AOC by an 18-1 margin. He will have such little regard for her, he sends a surrogate to represent him at their first debate.
Oh. And he will lose, and it won’t even be that close.
“If I was like a normal person, I would have dropped out of this race a long time ago,” says Ocasio-Cortez, who sometimes wears her vulnerabilities on her sleeve — which never seems like an act and only makes her an even more appealing long shot.
“Knock Down the House” profiles three other challengers, each with a unique story, each sincere and dedicated and determined to make a difference.
Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia who lost several loved ones to black lung disease, is running for the U.S. Senate against Joe Manchin, who’s tight with the coal mining industry.
“If another country came here and blew up our mountains and polluted our water, we’d go to war,” says Swearengin.
Cori Bush, a registered nurse and ordained pastor who participated in the protests over the killing of Michael Brown, is running for Congress in Missouri’s 1st district.
“I live just six minutes from Ferguson,” says Bush as she drives around the area.
In separate moments, AOC and Bush talk about how female candidates are subjected to more scrutiny over their appearance than the men. (AOC notes there are basically two uniforms for the guys; suits, or slacks and sports shirt with the sleeves rolled up.)
“You have to speak like this, you have to dress like this,” says Bush. “I basically decided, yeah I don’t care.”
In Nevada, Amy Vilela leaves behind a good job as a CFO to take on Rep. Steven Horsford. She was motivated to run by the heartbreaking death of her 22-year-old daughter, who was refused treatment at a hospital when she couldn’t provide proof of insurance and died shortly thereafter.
“This is not a game to me,” says Vilela. “I turned my back on an executive level job, I sold my house, I have gone into debt.”
Like all four of the candidates, Vilela is running a decidedly low-budget campaign. At one point she’s seen cleaning up after the millennials working in her office and she says: “I’m Amy Vilela [and] I do NOT approve of this mess.”
Director Lears and co-writer/editor Robin Blotnick had the benefit of knowing the outcomes when they put together the film, so it’s easy to understand why Ocasio-Cortez is the primary focus. (Spoiler alert: AOC is the only one of the four to win.)
But they do an excellent job of weaving in the stories of the three equally impressive candidates. It’s clear they gained the trust of all four women, as their cameras are present in moments of great hope, and moments of disappointment. (A shot of Vilela sobbing after her defeat, no doubt remembering her daughter as staffers comfort her, will just pierce your heart.)
In a moment straight out of a Hollywood movie, Ocasio-Cortez is walking with her boyfriend to the restaurant where her campaign team is watching the primary results. She looks through the window and gets a glimpse of the TVs — and dashes to the door, where security stops her.
“That’s me on the poster!” AOC has to explain before she’s allowed in.
As she steps inside, she has crossed a threshold and broken a barrier and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in modern American political history.
She’s no longer knocking on the door. She knocked the damn thing rights off its hinges.
‘Knock Down the House’
Netflix presents a documentary directed by Rachel Lears. Rated PG (for thematic elements, language and brief smoking). Running time: 87 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park and on Netflix.