Easily one of my favorite films to screen at the 2016 Heartland Film Festival, Andrew Cohn's profoundly involving Night School follows the stories of three adult learners in Indy's inner-city trying a second time around to finish their high school education.
There's Greg Henson, a single father who left school believing that selling drugs would be the faster path to financial success. Now, with a daughter to raise, Henson is making better choices despite an environment that doesn't seem to ever encourage it.
Shynika Jakes is a homeless fast food employee who dreams of becoming a nurse and whose self-esteem you can practically feel building up over the course of Night School.
The final core subject of Night School is Melissa Lewis, a 52-year-old whose life just seems to have gotten away from her and who, maybe more than anything, just wants to prove to herself that she can finish up something she never should have missed.
Night School debuted to acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival for its filmmaker, Emmy Award-winning Andrew Cohn, whose Emmy-Award-winning film was the Heartland gem Medora was also an Indiana-based film for the Ann Arbor born and New York-based filmmaker.
The film is set on the Eastside of Indianapolis, an area where this writer also happens to live and an area marked by pockets of wealth surrounded by almost unfathomable poverty. Cohn is unflinching in portraying the reality of their stories, from those moments of affirmation and inspiration to the heartbreaking and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that block their paths and threaten their goals.
Greg, for example, possesses a quiet determination to build a better life for his daughter while continuing to live in an environment where "the better life" would mean moving, tossing away friendships and, in some cases, setting aside family. In other words, it's way easier said than done. Greg clings to the encouragement of teachers and counselors at the school he attends, teachers and counselors whose unbridled optimism is crashed into daily by the harsh realities of economic inequality and social injustice. I saw myself in Greg, perhaps also being an Eastsider whose recent efforts to move out of my own slightly less poverty stricken neighborhood have been squelched by the harsh realities of an upside down mortgage and a disability that is difficult to afford even while working a full time job.
The other two stories are just as compelling. Shynika's growth throughout the film has you constantly rooting for her, yet more than a little bit worried about her as her own empowerment threatens her employment as she becomes involved in the movement for a livable wage for all including fast food workers. Even when she aspires to a better life as a nurse, where a livable wage is practically assured, Shynika's just as concerned with the "right now" and seems acutely aware that it's also about more than just her. You can't help but fall in love with her.
Melissa's story, while perhaps less dramatic than the other two, is perhaps the most emotionally involving and, well, just plain sad as one sees the rather overwhelming impact of the cycle of poverty and life lived on the fringes of a community. Cohn makes us ache for Melissa, though mostly Melissa makes us drawn to her even as she struggles to stay on track.
Night School wisely makes these stories personal by enveloping the audience in the cyclical nature of their lives. The cycle is realistic, not dramatically enhanced for cinema, with Greg's criminal background constantly coming back to haunt him both in the community and within the walls of his home while Shynika and Melissa's obstacles are realistically portrayed with the external and internal influences both brought powerfully to life. Cohn's film isn't simply a "feel good" film about overcoming, but a challenging and motivated film about the freakishly godawful and institutional ways in which we've created systems that destabilize and discourage rather than stabilize and empower.
Night School, maybe more than anything, succeeds in doing exactly what it portrays needs to be done by empowering these lives with truth and authenticity devoid of condescension and judgment. It's a rare but invaluable approach accomplished by the best documentarians and, between the award-winning Medora and the ESPN "30 for 30" doc Kid Danny and now Night School, Cohn has quickly become one of this decade's most promising documentarians.
Richard's Note: "Night School" captured the Heartland Film Festival's prize for Best Documentary Feature and the $45,000 prize. The film also picked up the Audience Award for Documentary Feature and represents director Andrew Cohn's second award-winning Heartland film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic