Sundance 2019: “Knock Down the House”

The Rachel Lears’ documentary “Knock Down the House” played to a packed theater audience, an emotionally-stirred crowd following four female insurgents fighting tooth-and-nail against longtime political incumbents from the left.

The bulk of the film focuses on a campaign by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ran as a progressive to win New York’s 14th House District. Her wit, charisma, intelligence and passion play strongly on screen as she handles an extraordinary campaign that is somehow run with practically no money. A young bartender from the Bronx with a dream and belief, Ocasio-Cortez pulls off a memorable upset over the entrenched Joe Crowley, U.S. Representative from New York State.

Rachel Lears, director of Knock Down The House, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance | photo by Harper Cowan


The warmth of “Knock Down the House” comes from watching Ocasio-Cortez in play. Beyond the tedium of running for a local election, collecting signatures and going door-to-door, Ocasio-Cortez shines through as she embraces her constituents, showing a passionate underdog whose love for the people is unrivaled.

However, the real power of the film comes from watching all four exceptional women in this fly-on-the-wall documentary, going along with each respective candidate in sprightly fashion as they fight to win their respective primaries. We follow Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter from Coal City, West Virginia, who has witnessed how pollutants have plagued her local community with cancer-related deaths; Cori Bush, a St. Louis nurse who helped the wounded during the Ferguson riots; and Amy Vilela, a driven Nevada mother, who tragically lost her 22-year-old daughter to a brain clot after a hospital turned her away due to lack of health insurance.

In the end, “Knock Down the House” highlights how one victory is a step forward for everyone, while Ocasio-Cortez final interview in the documentary during a road trip to Washington, DC is both touching and memorable.