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May 6, 2017

The Bad Kids

by Franz Patrick


Bad Kids, The (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s eye-opening, heartbreaking, hopeful documentary “The Bad Kids” is appropriately titled not because its subjects are actually bad kids, even though sometimes they do get into trouble, but rather it acknowledges society’s ill-informed assumptions when it comes to kids who have trouble graduating high school. For instance, because these kids are unable to go lead a successful high school career under a standardized curriculum, they must not be smart, they must be trouble, they must be lazy, they must be bad. Clearly, the title is from the perspective of privilege.

The subjects attend Black Rock High School, an alternative school for 11th and 12th graders in Mojave Desert, most of them at-risk teens, who need to make up credits so they can graduate. The focus is on three teenagers: Joey, a talented musician but saddled with his mother’s drug addiction; Lee, a young father raising a baby with his fellow classmate; and Jennifer, a sexual assault survivor who feels that her father does not support her efforts at school. The camera follows them through the hallways, to the classroom, and in the principal’s office. Ms. Vonda Viland encourages them that they are more than they think they are.

Like other effective documentaries, the directors are confident in simply allowing the camera to observe the every day. It captures every compelling moment, from the subjects’ victories to their failures, their hopes and fears, as well their habit of second-guessing themselves. All the while we are reminded of who we were in high school, how tough and confusing it all was—despite the fact that, at least in my instance, I came from a supportive household. A common link that these kids share is a lack of effective, present parenting. While some students live with their grandmothers or friends or in a homeless shelter, those who do live with their parents tend to not care. They say they care, but their actions suggest otherwise. At times they care more about their boyfriends and would rather do drugs.

Numerous meetings stand out but especially memorable is when educators get a chance to discuss how their students affect their own lives, how emotionally draining it is to wish to do more for your kids but so many elements are out of your control. For instance, an acknowledgement is made that sometimes the teachers lose sleep since some of their students are homeless, a number of them do not have food to eat outside of school. Students tend to attend class without changing their clothes since they have nowhere to wash them. They are afraid or too embarrassed to ask for help.

I wish educators like Ms. Viland and her colleagues shown here were celebrated more. When one reads the word “educator,” a picture of a person standing in front of a classroom comes to mind. But this documentary shows the many roles an educator fulfills outside of the classroom and these are the most compelling. I will always remember my high school teachers who encouraged me, Madame Kuhlmann and Mr. McCullough, and I bet that once these teenagers are in their twenties and thirties, they will look fondly at these educators who genuinely cared, who pushed them and dragged them into getting their high school diplomas—and then discussing college options. I would like to see a film detailing the lives of its three main subjects, including Ms. Viland’s, ten to twenty years from now.

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