John F. Kennedy High School considers itself Newark, N.J.'s “Best Kept Secret” — the staff even answers the phone with that tag line, and deservedly so. But as Samantha Buck’s moving documentary makes clear, the secret weapon at the public school for special-needs students is Janet Mino, an inspirational teacher with limitless patience and indefatigable enthusiasm.
Mino has taught her classroom of a half-dozen autistic boys in the country’s 10th-poorest city for four years. They are all about to age out of the system — or, as one mom in Buck’s research referred to it, “fall off the cliff.” The film focuses on three of Mino’s students: Erik, a sweet, outgoing kid whose dream is to work at Burger King; Quron, a kind, quiet boy who’s lucky to have both parents raising him; and Robert, who will break your heart.
Over the course of 18 months — a clever structure that creates a ticking clock — Mino struggles to find government-funded programs in which to place her students after graduation that won’t undo all her hard work. This is no sappy portrait of a saint: Mino is tenacious, critical and defensive, and in one memorable scene, a colleague tries to get her to face reality about what the real world holds for their students after graduation. (For one thing, they’ll start being called “consumers.”)
All of this unfolds with limited on-screen explanatory text and no expert talking heads, inserting the viewer into the overwhelming experience of teaching, parenting, even being an underprivileged young adult with autism.
“Best Kept Secret”
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena.