‘The Bad Kids’: Sundance Review

The Bad Kids Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Perceptive and persuasive, up to a point.

Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton’s timely documentary looks at a progressive high school program to support students from impoverished Mojave Desert communities.

Any California statewide awards program for outstanding educators would do well to consider Vonda Viland, principal of Black Rock High School in the small town of Yucca Valley in rural San Bernardino County. Compassionate, insightful and humorous, she’s the kind of administrator that few students have the good fortune to encounter during their school years, but the type that can make a profound impact on kids’ lives.

Her role is even more crucial because Black Rock isn’t an ordinary high school, it’s one in a network of 500 California alternative “continuation” schools for at-risk students, the final waystation for so-called "bad kids" likely to fail or drop out whenever the next calamity strikes. Directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe dive right into the school’s maelstrom of tragedy, dysfunction and boundless optimism, delivering an insightful, affecting film that casts sympathetic light on a neglected educational sector in a manner that acknowledges the dedication of countless career educators and may even help inspire a new generation of teachers and social workers. 

It’s not unusual for Viland to arrive at Black Rock's high Mojave Desert campus before dawn so that she can personally phone some of her pupils to make sure they’re getting out of bed and heading to class. When they arrive, they find her outside the school doors greeting many kids individually by name. A significant number of her 120 students come from troubled families where they regularly deal with issues related to homelessness, drug addiction, abuse and neglect. “There is no shame in asking for help,” says Viland, and in fact she and her vigilant, proactive staff are frequently the only caring adults in many of their young lives, playing the roles of both instructors and counselors.

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For some teens from especially difficult circumstances, even that kind of support is insufficient. Joey McGee, a talented 17-year-old musician, is determined to graduate from Black Rock, but life at home with his unemployed, meth-abusing single mom keeps knocking him off track, and even a truant officer’s implied threats can’t persuade him to attend class regularly.

Motivated to get a full-time job, model student Jennifer Coffield is trying to graduate early, but she faces frequent crises of self-confidence after being abandoned by her parents and forced to live with her impoverished grandmother. “There’s nothing for kids to do out here, so it causes us to get into a lot of bad things,” she observes, recalling her history of youthful drug abuse and truancy.

Lee Bridges is an aspiring nursing student and unemployed 18-year-old dad attempting to split his time between childcare and high school, just like his girlfriend Layla Schneider, who shares responsibility for their infant son. Together they’re trying to remain focused on their future as they contend with the often-discouraging realities of teen parenthood. 

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Since Black Rock has limited resources for its dropout intervention program, it only accepts pupils by referral for eleventh and twelfth grade classes in its self-paced program and has a long waiting list. Although Viland counsels each of these troubled kids individually, having been through some similar experiences herself while growing up, many continue struggling to get ahead. When students complete their requirements, though, she leads each in a graduation-style walk down the school’s main corridor to the applause of teachers and fellow pupils; cap and gown are optional. Getting these kids through the program takes a tough toll on staff, however, since Black Rock is well-known as the hardest assignment in the school district and their role providing constant support is “emotionally draining,” as one exhausted teacher says.

Working together over the past two decades, Fulton and Pepe’s best-known credit as co-directors is 2002’s Lost in La Mancha, a documentary on Terry Gilliam’s doomed feature The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. With The Bad Kids, they pursue an immersive filmmaking process by attending classes, shadowing Black Rock students in their encounters with one another and their teachers, and in some cases following them after school to seek additional context on their domestic situations. They favor an observational verite style, avoiding traditional voiceover narration and interviews, eschewing outside experts and bypassing comparative data on educational trends. 

This approach is productive up to a point, but an absence of adequate context and additional perspective leaves unanswered questions about the impact and significance of the Black Rock program, as well as the social implications of dealing with such a vulnerable student population so often subjected to violence and neglect. The doc does make clear, however, that chronic, endemic poverty is the predominant underlying factor driving or exacerbating many of the other issues that these teens have to deal with, as their families attempt to survive with low-wage jobs and public assistance. Life isn’t easy for these kids, but many of them are determined to prevail regardless. 

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production company: Low Key Pictures
Directors: Keith Fulton, Lou Pepe
Producer: Keith Fulton
Executive producers: Ted Dintersmith, Donna Gruneich, Kevin Gruneich, Ari Ioannides, Christine Ioannides
Director of photography: Lou Pepe
Editors: Jacob Bricca, Mary Lampson
Music: Michal Jacaszek
Sales: Preferred Content

Not rated, 101 minutes