Americans increasingly live in bubbles and echo chambers where our news, our social media feeds, and even our churches tailor their messages so precisely that we rarely see or hear those whose lives and beliefs differ drastically from our own. No media form is immune from the audience’s tendency to gravitate toward stories that confirm rather than challenge its preconceived notions—but documentary films do seem singularly equipped to take us out of our comfort zones. The extra effort it takes to get up and leave a theater as opposed to turning off a DVD or scrolling past a Facebook feed is often enough of a difference to make skeptical viewers stick with stories that don’t immediately strike them as worth their time.

Cases in point: Neither Served Like a Girl nor The Work generated much enthusiasm for me based on their catalog descriptions alone. They turned out, however, to be the two most engaging and inspiring films at March’s SXSW Film Festival.

Lysa Heslov’s film profiles five current and former participants in the Ms. Veteran America competition. (Don’t call it a “pageant,” or you’ll owe the women ten push ups.) If you are ambivalent about such competitions, don’t worry—so are some of the least at first. But the show’s primary goal—to raise awareness of and funds for America’s 55,000 homeless female veterans—resonates strongly with these service women committed to the creed that a soldier does not leave behind a fallen comrade.

It’s fairly obvious that the film, like the competition, is designed to challenge stereotypical media images of beauty. The contestants represent a variety of ethnicities and body types. ...

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