Early in the compelling documentary “The Bad Kids,” a probation officer asks one of the student subjects, “What do you want out of life? What do you expect to get without an education?”
The student, 17-year-old Joey, attends Black Rock High School in Yucca Valley, Calif., a last-chance “continuation” school for him and other 11th and 12 graders seeking to earn a high school diploma after falling short elsewhere. The school is in the Mojave Desert, near Joshua Tree National Park, and seemingly at the end of the Earth for its students.
Joey and other students featured in the film don’t seem to know exactly what they want out of life, or what to realistically expect without getting their diplomas.
The faculty at Black Rock High, led by principal Vonda Viland, knows that it is teaching students who have failed elsewhere and who are far from guaranteed to earn their diplomas here in the desert.
Joey, for example, is an aspiring musician whose father is incarcerated and whose mother uses methamphetamine, and Joey himself descends into alcohol and drug use as the school year progresses. Another featured student, Lee, is the father of young child, whose mother is also a student at Black Rock. And Jennifer is someone who has faced past sexual abuse but has ambitions for a successful career. The film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and opens a theatrical run in Los Angeles on Friday before opening in other cities, more fleetingly spotlights other students.
But the indisputable star of the documentary is Viland, the principal. Early on, we see her telling some new students that there is no detention or “Saturday school” for discipline violations because that’s not how things work in the real world.
Later, Viland frankly tells some students that much of what they are learning in mathematics, social studies, or other subjects will be of no use to them as adults. Taking such courses is part of the game, she says.
She has a desk plaque that says, “The witch is in.” But Viland hardly comes across as mean. Tough and tenacious, yes. But she seems to have a heart of gold deep in her wiry frame. She roams the halls one morning asking whether students need a carton of milk. She rises at a ridiculously early hour to exercise and then calls some students at daybreak to wake them and make sure they are going to get to school that day.
And Viland and her faculty are realistic about the heavily pierced cohort of students at Black Rock High. The students need to achieve only as many credit hours as required for graduation. When a student does reach that milestone, Viland takes to the school intercom to congratulate her, and it sounded as if the school played “Pomp and Circumstance” over the intercom as well (as opposed to the filmmakers inserting it).
The film by directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe uses a cinéma vérité style, so no talking head experts and no narration. (One of the executive producers is Ted Dintersmith, a venture capitalist who was behind the 2015 education doc “Most Likely to Succeed.”)
The vérité approach is mostly refreshing for an education documentary, but the only drawback is that the audience could have benefited from a few more background slides in the beginning to help understand the concept of continuation schools and some of the facts about Black Rock High.
Only toward the end of the 101-minute film do we learn that the school serves only 11th and 12th graders, and is at capacity. This comes when a skateboarder-type 9th grader arrives to ask Viland about whether he can enroll.
Not yet, the principal tells him. But he can leave his name, and Black Rock High will be here if he still needs it when he becomes a high school junior. Thank goodness for that.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.