Film Review: Night School

A wonderfully trenchant and moving doc about three souls in search of a diploma.
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For anyone sick of watching rich idiots be their rich, idiotic selves on shows featuring various Kardashians and “Real Housewives,” Night School offers a bracing, if sobering, antidote. This writer has always wondered why there is rarely any coverage of the lives of folks who fall into your basic middle and lower-income status, since showing how people who are truly challenged (economically, socially or in other ways) get by would be both salutary and enlightening.

In the case of the three African-Americans upon whom director Andrew Cohn focuses, education is the big theme—more specifically, the lack thereof. Going back to the classroom for the high-school diplomas they never got are Melissa, an overweight grandmother in her 50s; the often homeless Shynika, who dreams of a nursing career, and Greg, an ex-con who needs to somehow overcome his criminal record so he can properly care for his little girl who has epilepsy. Cohn, realizing the educational crisis particularly occurring in this region, and already an Indiana booster after his doc Medora, moved with his crew to Indianapolis for almost a year to follow the trio as they pursued their goal at the Excel Center, a no-tuition program for dropouts, supported by Goodwill.

Their stories are often wrenchingly sad, rife with poverty and setbacks that would demolish the spirit of anyone, but such is their determination to somehow eke out a better life for themselves that you come to realize that these are no mere mortals. Gratifyingly, the film is anything but a pity party, even as you are thrown into their various real-life situations that always interfere with cracking the books.

The admittedly lonely Melissa finally meets a nice guy on the bus and goes bowling with him, but it’s that damn algebra test she has failed many times that most concerns here (and, while we’re at it, exactly why did we have to learn algebra in the first place?). At one point, a despairing Shynika wonders if things will ever turn around for her, but she finds real purpose by becoming involved with the “Fight for 15” movement for raising the minimum wage.

Devastatingly, during the filming Greg learned that his brother fell victim to a street fight, during which he was shot. The huge, scarring wound he exposes in his hospital bed incites vengeance in Greg, but his sibling tells him to lay off the shooter; perhaps the cycle of pain will be finally broken. But almost as devastating is hearing him scoff at Greg’s diploma aspirations, recalling that when he was in fourth grade his brother announced that he wanted to be a drug dealer when he grew up.

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