Somebody forgot to tell Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab that a noble cause does not a movie make. They probably thought they were looking into a conceptual gold mine when they trained their documentary cameras on Whitwell, Tenn., a depressed, overwhelmingly Christian community that taught itself a lesson in diversity by having its middle-school students collect paper clips to commemorate the victims of Hitler's Holocaust. But whatever cross-cultural watershed the Whitwell story foretold evaporates in Paper Clips, a toothless piece of feel-good filmmaking that would rather allude to conflict than observe it.
From the painfully earnest interviews to the homiletic voice-over narration to the cloying backing music, the movie sets a tone of self-congratulatory nicety and sticks to it for 83 minutes. We learn how the administration at Whitwell Middle School hit on the idea of having its kids solicit ordinary paper clips from donors around the globe, with each clip to stand for one of the 6 million Jews the Third Reich put to death. While most of the participants interviewed are upfront about their personal remove from such historical calamities, everybody in this town of 1,600 seems to have been squarely behind the project from the start. All that remains is to watch the kids happily accept and catalog symbolic office supplies from a variety of sources.
The closest thing to real drama arises in the first half-hour of the doc, when the students begin to fret that they'll fall short of their clip-raising goal. Thanks to some outside help, they're soon zooming past 29 clips collected, and Berlin and Fab are back to grinding easily digestible pablum out of raw footage that would have worked just as well as a 15-minute short. And even that would have been one-dimensional. Instead, we get to hear Principal Linda Hooper crowing that her school's noble effort must have been overseen by God. Perspective check: Didn't somebody else say that about his own collection project, about 60 years ago?