Film Review: The Bad Kids

Students on the brink of disaster are the subject of this admirably heartfelt and uncondescending documentary.
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In the bleak Mojave Desert, Black Rock high school is there to serve kids on the brink of indelibly wrecking their lives, challenged by poverty, personal demons and family strife. There, principal Vonda Viland emerges as the true star of this highly affecting documentary by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe. “Above and beyond” does not even begin to describe this woman’s commitment to her students, tirelessly corralling wayward youths to class by any means necessary, from making wakeup calls to personally picking them up. Once in school, countless concerned counseling sessions make up her day, as she not only doles out advice about improving grades but, in many cases, no-nonsense but compassionate life lessons, and sometimes food as well.  

The Bad Kids focuses on three students. Joey McGee has been indelibly scarred by a meth addict mom, and sees no use for school in his dreams of capitalizing on his very real guitar skills. Jennifer Coffield must contend with a completely unsupportive father, of the particularly insane type, who derives amusement by putting her down. Lee Bridges is already a father himself, with a classmate baby mama, and will be thrown out of his own home if he doesn’t graduate. At first blush, they may seem every parent’s nightmare of your typical hormone-addled, attitude-filled, intractable offspring, but the filmmakers are empathetically probing enough to uncover the deep, heartbreaking humanity in each of them.

The film could have used more focus, as it skitters between the kids, school scenes, teachers’ meetings, etc., in a seemingly random way that sometimes suggests the work of Frederick Wiseman. But the upside of all this is that, as with Wiseman, an accumulated scope is gained, furthering your understanding of both people and place. And regarding the latter, Pepe, who did the cinematography, finds stark beauty in the barren desert landscape which the protagonists may be wholly unaware of, and provides visual respite from the very real sturm und drang existing in these classrooms.

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