The Bad Kids
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You can’t help but smile as the students and teachers of Black Rock High School line the corridors in applause. Another of their schoolmates has graduated. It’s a rare moment of joy amongst a seemingly endless barrage of hardships for the attendees of the Mojave Desert-based institution. Abusive and absent parents, teenage pregnancies, drug addiction, and extreme poverty have left them with nowhere else to go.
However, as directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe set out to show in this sombre yet powerful documentary, there is hope yet. Headed by the optimistic and compassionate principal, Vonda Viland, Black Rock provides the troubled kids with a progressive and empathetic pathway to a high school diploma.
Taking an observational, vérité approach, Fulton and Pepe (who most famously made the Terry Gilliam doc, Lost In La Mancha) follow three of these kids in particular, detailing their individual struggles and successes. Doing so, the pair allow for lengthy periods where the camera lingers on its subject, providing much needed breathing room to contemplate the often disheartening realities of the students’ situations. A stand out sequence sees us gaze upon the crowded halls of the school, while a cacophony of voice-overs piles up – each another story of despair.
While undoubtedly affecting, one can’t help but wonder if the film might have been even better served had its focus been with the principal. Viland’s incessant selflessness is truly captivating, and yearns to be detailed further. At school before daybreak, she prepares for the day’s work, and then calls individual students to ensure their attendance and greets them as they step off the school bus. It’s moments like this that give the film its power, moments that suggest that despite a seemingly overwhelming tide of hardships and heartache for these kids, not all is lost. “This town swallows people up and brings them down,” explain Joey, one of the three main focuses of the film. The Bad Kids suggests that, perhaps, it doesn’t need to.