Film Review: Shakespeare High

There won’t be a more inspiring or moving documentary made this year than Alex Rotaru’s powerful tribute to students besotted by the Bard.

Shakespeare High is a serious rebuke to anyone who considers Southern California a cultural wasteland, especially where live theatre is concerned. Romanian director Alex Rotaru’s terrifically spirited, deeply moving documentary focuses on the annual DTASC (Dramatic Teachers Association of Southern California) Shakespeare Festival, in which teams of high-school students quite seriously compete by staging scenes from the Bard. Rotaru follows the kids in five highly different schools as they rehearse and dream about winning a trophy, just as such distinguished competitors like Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham (who was a high-school performing legend herself) did before them.

All three actors, along with fellow Festival alumnus Richard Dreyfuss, appear in the film, recounting how meaningful both Shakespeare and this experience were for them. Spacey and Winningham even visit the students at their former school in Chatsworth and Spacey declares, “If there is anyone who thinks that those trophies I won are not directly connected to that Oscar, they just don’t get it.”

The students themselves prove to be true stars in life as well as on stage, like Tosh, Taco and Vato, all former East L.A. gangbangers who turned their lives around when they took up drama, and bring their past sensibilities to a rousing interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which they compare the fairies to rival gangs. There’s chubby Colleen at Notre Dame girls’ school, whose love of theatre is the one thing which motivates her and is out to definitely prove that girls can be funny too (an age-old showbiz struggle). There’s Tommy, a rocket-fueled carrot-top who also found himself through Shakespeare, and, perhaps most affecting of all, twin African-American brothers Galvin and Melvin, who came to live with their uncle after their father murdered their mother and grandmother. Astoundingly well-adjusted, these two are simply phenomenal, determined to be the best that they can be, whether in sports or drama, and only fell into the program because, as they tell it, “they needed some big black guys [for Othello].”

The brothers, along with Tommy, go to school in Hesperia, an isolated, low-income desert community in the farthest reaches of the state which, uncannily, has been a dominating competitor for years, the one all the others are out to beat. The very lack of anything to do there—apart from visiting the local banana museum—has been, as its students confess, a primary motivator in their winning focus.

Just as much as the youngsters, their teachers are also heroes here, and, as Spacey mentions, in this age—so different from his youth—of reduced arts funding, their dedication and the loving discipline they instill are jaw-dropping. With keen insight, Rotaru shoots and edits enough actual performance footage to have your mouth watering to see more of the blazingly fresh, fiercely physical and perfectly coordinated energy these kids bring to lines and situations that are centuries old. He captures the breathtaking excitement of all the busloads of young competitors converging for the Festival, along with the undeniably poignant realization that this will be an unforgettable moment in everyone’s lives. And when those former gangbangers win first place and you hear them exulting about the happiest day they’ve ever known, I defy anyone not to have one serious throat lump.

The film closes on the most upbeat of notes with follow-up text about the students, and it’s fabulous to learn how well they’ve all done. Even with financial challenges barring some from going on to pursue their dreams at appropriate colleges, the number of offered scholarships is not only gratifying to see, but concrete proof of the eternal transformative power of that old guy from Stratford-on-Avon.