Director: Andrew Cohn
Written by: Andrew Cohn
Cast: Greg Henson, Shynika Jakes, Melissa Lewis
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/16/17
Opens: June 9, 2017
In President Trump’s cabinet we have a labor secretary who supports business; an energy secretary who will to let the coal and oil industries do what they want; a house and urban development boss whose specialty is neurosurgery; and an education secretary who trashes public schools.
Let’s go beyond our clueless education leader, Betsy DeVos, and look into what’s really wrong with our education system. Consider this: a great many students from K-12 don’t want to sit still listening to adults drone on about subjects whose relevance they can’t see. The resulting behavior of potential dropouts can range from immobility to trashing the schoolrooms. On the other hand are adults past the age of twenty-five who are more serious than kids, given their maturity and sense of responsibility. Sure, they may have gone back to school to get better jobs rather than to learn about Plato and Aristotle, but they are not likely to be disruptive, they will do the assigned homework, and they may treasure the experience. In other words, they are finally ready to be educated.
May I enjoy a diversion? Why not send kiddies to camp to play baseball, basketball and to swim, which they will love to do, and allow teens to lift weights, run around the track, and play vid games. Then, when they have acquired full maturity, which usually occurs at the age of twenty-five when their brains develop full sense of ethics, we can begin to school them.
That plan is impractical, granted—a fantasy. But ideally, the best time to assign people to sit still at their desks is when their hormones are no longer raging and their sense of responsibility takes hold. Don’t take my word for it. In the movie “Night School,” a trio of folks beyond the traditional school age are finally ready to learn. They all were part of the 1.2 million children who drop out of school each year. They did not have the privileges of people with more stable homes, the folks who put off having kids of their own until they got their college diplomas. The three stars of “Night School” are of diverse ages albeit all African-Americans, and they all have the brains to pass a final, standardized test which they could not have come near doing so when they were eighteen.
The counselors and teachers who help these three adults to stick with the work really care about them, which is unusual given that so many dropouts use the standard excuse “Teachers don’t care.” In fact when one of them absents himself from class because “it was cold” the counselor, who announces that she’s from Jamaica and has no problem with the Midwest weather. The Indianapolis institution that these three attend guides people who might have otherwise given up.
The classes that we see strangely enough teach algebra with just two blackboard lessons that deal with biology. Do these students not need history, English, computer study? No matter. Movie director Andrew Cohn, whose “Medora” deals with four boys from Medora, Indiana who fight to reverse their basketball team’s losing streak while their town faces extinction, stays right on base, this time in Indiana’s capital. His photographer, Zachary Shields, trains the lenses on Excel Center, financed by Goodwill Industries, which allows dropouts to take courses free of charge with flexible schedules. The aim is to get them a piece of paper. The diploma is the real deal, not a G.E.D., which is not considered a real equivalency by many employers.
With a cast that includes a number of teachers and counselors at the center and with insights into the lives of some students outside the center, “Nigh School” focuses on just three of the people with regained ambition and a determination to find careers, not jobs. The most interesting fellow is Greg Henson, who becomes increasingly frustrated when he finds out that he has a rap sheet of misdemeanors that threatens to have him arrested should he be stopped by a cop for any reason. The offenses are light; driving with a suspended license and possession of marijuana (when he was younger and crazier, of course). He seeks to have the record expunged, cleared from the roving eyes of potential employers. That’s not all. His brother, a drug dealer is shot and his four-year-old daughter Khloe, for whom he appears to have sole custody, is diagnosed with epilepsy.
Shynika Jakes wants to be a nurse, though if she seeks an RN she will need more than a high school diploma. She works in the fast-food industry and joins a strike for a $15 minimum in Indiana. Recruited by a strike organizer, she considers that pressuring the state for a $15 minimum is the obvious move. But what happens if the management at Arby’s thinks otherwise? Despite her full-time job, her good looks and enthusiasm, she is homeless, living in her car, staying at friends’ houses.
Melissa Lewis is lonely, which must have something to do with her morbid obesity. One would hope that the counselors at Excel would discuss a weight-reduction program, which would help her employability (though she has passed the age of 50), and more importantly for health as she is at risk for diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. She works in a store selling used clothing, probably not even encouraged by the boss to tell customers how good they look in this or that outfit, but simply replacing the goods on the racks in proper order. Her poverty results in part from having a child at the age of 14. It should be noted, in fact, that all three people have children, just about the last thing they need at least until they complete their own schooling.
Once again: even while granting that director Cohn is more interested in sociology/group psychology than in the specifics of the educational program at Excel, one wonders why only algebra is taught.
This is a feel-good documentary, one that will be cheered by people with good souls, though quite a few moments it has the momentum and excitement of a woman replacing dresses on the racks, another stacking roast beef sandwiches, and still a third fighting the bureaucracy. There are no visual effects, no razzle-dazzle; just cinéma vérité.
Unrated. 85 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers? Agree? Disagree? Why?
Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B