'Night School': Film Review

A humanistic portrait of people struggling for the American dream.

Andrew Cohn's documentary follows three adults over the course of a year as they pursue their high school diplomas.

“I don’t want a job, I need a career,” declares one of the subjects of Night School. The statement effectively sums up the emotional impact of Andrew Cohn’s (Medora) documentary chronicling three African-American adults working over the course of a year to earn their high school diplomas. Feeling particularly relevant these days because of the ever-growing obstacles faced by less-educated people struggling for economic gains, the moving film depicts the American dream in action.

The cinema verite-style documentary introduces us to 31-year-old Greg, a former drug dealer and single father to an epilepsy-afflicted young girl; 26-year-old Shynika, reduced to living in her car due to her low-paying fast-food job; and 52-year-old grandmother Melissa, who just needs to pass algebra before she can fulfill her longtime goal of receiving her diploma.

All three enroll at Excel Center, an Indianapolis learning institution whose students are nearly all black and which offers the opportunity for them to receive actual high school diplomas, rather than the GEDs that only provide limited employment opportunities.

The film’s most dramatic arc concerns Greg, whose brother continues to deal drugs and feels no regret about quitting school and eschewing a legitimate job. During the time Greg is pursuing his studies, he faces such setbacks as discovering that he has an arrest warrant against him for a pending charge involving driving with a suspended license; dealing with the aftermath when his brother is shot; and missing classes when his daughter suffers a seizure that sends her to the hospital.

Shynika, who dreams of becoming a nurse, becomes involved with a group attempting to organize fast-food workers to fight for higher wages, while the desperately lonely Melissa meet a man at a bus stop with whom she seems to have an instant connection.

The filmmaker thankfully avoids overt sentimentality with his direct, unaffected approach to the material. But genuine emotion creeps in nonetheless in such scenes as when the three students are told whether or not they’ve passed the course and — spoiler alert — Greg’s little girl cheers her father on as he receives his diploma.

Benefiting greatly from its charismatic, likeable subjects, Night School displays a compassion and empathy that feels more necessary than ever.

Production companies: Gigantic Pictures, Lucky Hat Entertainment, Wheelhouse Creative, Seven34 Films
Distributor: Oscilloscope
Director: Andrew Cohn
Producers: Steve Bannatyne, Andrew Cohn, Jason Orans, Pamela Ryan, Zachary Shields
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Brian Devine, Wendy Vanden Heuvel, Jenny Raskin, Louis Venezia, Jeremy Workman
Director of photography: Zachary Shields
Editor: Thomas Niles
Composer: Adam Rubenstein

85 minutes