Review: Documentary reveals struggles and opportunities of ‘Night School’

Shynika in a scene from the documentary "Night School."
(Oscilloscope Laboratories)

How do you combine homework with the everyday struggle to survive? For the three working-poor subjects of Andrew Cohn’s documentary “Night School” — high school dropouts returning to class years (and in one case decades) later to get not a GED but a full-on diploma — it’s more than just finishing something begun. It’s achieving something to start something: the dream of a more prosperous life.

Greg, 30, is a single father with a criminal record he’s trying to get expunged while he attends a free public school called the Excel Center in Indianapolis. Melissa is a lonely 53-year-old who just needs to conquer algebra to get the paper she believes will restore a beaten-down self-esteem from leaving school at age 14 to be a mom. Twenty-six-year-old Arby’s employee Shynika knows a diploma will help get her into nursing school, while the growing protest movement to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers awakens her political side. (She sleeps in her car, unable to afford a place to live.)

Cohn’s slickly edited verité-style storytelling lets each person’s humanity rise to the top, just enough to mix expected poignancy with a simple clarity about the struggles of low-income, opportunity-challenged souls. When tests and quizzes are in the offing, it’s hard not to feel that classic anxiety all over again. But what “Night School” makes abundantly, vitally real is that the stakes feel greater this time around when life has already tried hard to give these recharged aspirants a failing grade.



‘Night School’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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