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Flicks - Carnal Knowledge

Doc depicts small-town Joan of Arc

Lubbock, Texas, has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and venereal disease in the nation. Lubbock also boasts a regressively conservative city government and public school system that refuse to offer any sex education to its teenagers beyond advocating abstinence.

The Education of Shelby Knox, Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt's Sundance award-winning documentary, paints a fairly dismal picture of the result: Idle teens congregate in parking lots after dark where boredom drives them to sex. The adults are moralistic; the kids are fatalistic. Most of the teens seem prematurely wise to grown-up hypocrisy, aware that pregnancy and/or disease are virtually assured.

Enter Shelby Knox.

With the kind of steely determination that bucks every antediluvian tradition in her podunk town, the lovely teenager Shelby Knox becomes a one-woman crusader for sex education in Lubbock's schools.

The film follows Shelby's clashes with, among others, her parents. Alternating between annoying and admirable, her passive-aggressive Red State Ma and Pa claim to support their daughter in everything she does, but get mighty skittish when she threatens to rock their status quo boat.

Shelby's own history is astounding in light of her valiant support of gay students in a highly homophobic town. Shelby has taken a vow of abstinence at her Southern Baptist church, yet she continues to go to bat with a fierce determination for the sexually disenfranchised, taking on the twin Goliaths of fundamentalist Christianity and small-town conformity in the process.

Fireworks erupt when the unsinkable Miss Knox takes on the moral hypocrisies of the local youth minister who tries to reach the kids with his scary, misguided "straight talk" lectures on sex. He regales the terrified teens with his health ed home brew, like the "fact" that STDs can be spread with a handshake. One can only imagine Lubbock's randy teens racing for the antibacterial gel. Decked out in his modified surf/teen wear, the youth minister can't summon up the street cred to allow homosexuals into the kingdom of heaven. And he's less than thrilled with Shelby's bold, feminist political chutzpah.

But Shelby's biggest archenemy may be the smarmy high-school president of the Lubbock Youth Commission, which is pro-sex education. This future politico is drawn more to power than advocacy and abandons the cause when it's politically expedient. All the quotidian heartbreak of high-school life is on display when Shelby loses the election for president of the Youth Commission to her slicker opponent. Then, she's pushed aside in the wake of his cult of personality.

The Education of Shelby Knox is a documentary in the Dogville tradition, about the limitations on both common sense and behavior that small-town life can engender in its residents. Shelby experiences the bitterest type of coming of age, in which the scales of innocence fall from one's eyes to reveal adults that are meeker, more corrupt and pathetic than oneself.

The Education of Shelby Knox also portrays the dangerous inroads that fundamentalist Christianity has made into American public life, dispensed by a largely male church, city and school establishment. In the process, all this bureaucrat-enforced godliness carves out a narrow, largely conformist role for women and keeps basic health issues away from "impressionable" young people.

Be very afraid.

Image ?Image ?Image ?Image ?Image ?The Education of Shelby Knox plays Sat., June 11, 12:30 p.m., at the Atlanta-Fulton Central Library, 1 Margaret Mitchell Square. 404-730-1700; and Wed., June 15, 7 p.m., at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, 80 Forsyth St. 404-651-4727. www.atlantafilmfestival.org.