Best Kept Secret: Film Review

Best Kept Secret Poster - P 2013

Best Kept Secret Poster - P 2013

This deeply moving but thankfully unsentimental doc is both inspiring and depressing.

Samantha Buck's documentary chronicles the heroic efforts of a teacher to find placements for her autistic students after they graduate.

At once heartbreaking and uplifting, Best Kept Secret chronicles the heroic efforts of Janet Mino, a teacher who has devoted her career to working with autistic students. Its title inspired by the way the school’s receptionist greets phone callers (“You’ve reached John F. Kennedy High School, Newark’s best kept secret”), Samantha Buck’s cinema-verite style documentary engrosses even as it sheds much-needed light on its important issue. Opening Friday in a limited theatrical release, the film is scheduled for airing on PBS later this month.

It begins with an array of sobering statistics, including the facts that Newark is the tenth poorest city in the country and that one in forty-nine children in New Jersey are living with autism. Set during a roughly eighteen-month period, it chronicles the efforts of Mino, a teacher with twenty years under her belt, to help her class of male students find meaningful pursuits after they graduate. She’s determined to find them jobs or protective environments rather than have them land on the streets or, in education parlance, “fall off the cliff.”

As her interactions with the students demonstrate, it’s a daunting task. Suffering from varying degrees of autism, they exhibit such symptoms as a fear of plants or a tendency to eat their own skin. One student’s life goal is to work at Burger King, so Mino heads to a local franchise and manages to secure him a part-time job. She also visits a well-heeled recreational center offering an array of classes and interactive pursuits, although cost and transportation issues are inevitable problems.

Eschewing overt sentimentality, the filmmaker—also an actress who has appeared on such television shows as Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Third Watch—uses a fly-on-the-wall approach to chronicle Mino’s loving interactions with her students. These include Robert, who suffers from a difficult home life—his father, who homeschooled him, passed away, and he’s now being raised by his aunt, a recovering drug addict—and Quran, a tender-hearted young man who, unlike most of the others, manages to keep his behavior under control.

As the film’s coda sadly makes clear, not all of Mino’s efforts end happily. But the mere fact that such dedicated and indomitable teachers exist provides ample reason for hope.

Opens Sept. 6 (Argot Pictures)

Production: BKS Film, Occasional Giant Beard

Director: Samantha Buck

Screenwriter: Zeke Farrow

Producer: Danielle DiGiacomo

Executive producers: Scott Mosier, Daniella Kahane, Mark Nordlicht, Paul Bernon, Sean Curran, Jason Weissman

Director of photography: Nara Garber

Editor: Francisco Bello

Not rated, 85 min.