Film Review: Best Kept Secret

The wonderful work of one teacher, concerned with the adult future of autistic children, is spotlighted in this touching, funny and important documentary.

Newark, New Jersey is the tenth-poorest city in the United States, and its local news is often dire, filled with crime and violence. Yet, amidst all the shootings and despair, there’s one safe haven which rarely gets mentioned: John F. Kennedy High School, this film’s titular “best kept secret,” where teacher Janet Mino is doing work with autistic kids that can only be described as heroic.

“This is a positive thinking area” reads one of the signs in her cozy, brightly lit classroom, and here she devotes laser-beam attention on her students who all have difficulty communicating, many of them deeply troubled and from nightmarish backgrounds. There’s Erik, a gentle giant whose mother is a drug addict and whose deepest wish is to get a job at Burger King. Rahmi has an irrational fear of plants which Mino is doing her best to address. Quron is comparatively well-adjusted, but his parents have their own deep-seated concerns. Robert is perhaps the most serious case, once suffering from malnutrition and given to eating his own flesh.

In an interview I once did with singer Martha Wash, she confided that her pet personal charity had to do with the plight of autistic adults, who are given very few resources once their “adorable” childhood is behind them. Samantha Buck’s marvelous, moving documentary deals directly with this problem, as that is Mino’s chief concern as well. “Above and beyond” doesn’t begin to describe her dedication as she tirelessly investigates what few existing options there are for these boys, who are due to graduate in a matter of months. She treks to various adult daycare centers, some of which meet her approval level for instilling real social interaction and life skills in their charges, instead of just being a place for them to be dumped by their harried families. She even manages to land Erik a job at his beloved fast-food haven, putting a radiant smile on his face as he goes about the most menial tasks. Mino is a woman obsessed, often needing to be reminded by more experienced teachers that, although she already has 20 years of teaching under her belt, she still has to be able to “let it go.”

We learn very little about Mino’s personal life—if, indeed, she even has one in the face of her all-consuming work—like exactly how much she, like the admirable others in her field, is paid in a country that is now raring to go to war again while poverty rages and serious aid-givers are sorely undercompensated. Buck keeps the focus on the kids, and they are a supremely engaging bunch, never more so than at graduation time. It will be hard to keep a dry eye as you see the boys shyly strutting forth, immaculately groomed and filled with a hesitant pride, and Rahmi’s attempts to kiss a reluctant Quron may rank as 2013’s most touchingly funny movie moment. This happy moment is in contrast to the final end notes about them, tracking their subsequent histories which are not very happy. It’s all deeply sobering, and will be an important education for anyone who sees the film and perhaps will lend whatever kind of support they can.