The Bad Kids

The Bad Kids ★★★★

Like many documentaries of this kind, this year-in-the-life study—set at Black Rock High School, a continuation school in California’s 29 Palms area of the Mojave Desert, with a population of kids at high risk of dropping out—focuses on a few specific individuals. There’s Joey, the talented musician struggling with his mom’s drug addiction as well as his own; there’s Lee, trying to juggle school with sharing care of his infant son; there’s Jennifer, hoping to graduate early despite a troubled family history. But perhaps the most haunting sequence comes when directors Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton craft a sound montage of dozens of students talking about the circumstances that make it so hard for them to succeed. It’s this sense of the almost overwhelming obstacles facing these teens that makes the work of principal Vonda Viland—who rises before dawn to give individual students wake-up calls—and her staff so heroic. Every individual student’s story is full of both encouragements and despair, making it clear that it’s simply not possible for Black Rock (and Viland) to save everyone. But understanding how unlikely it might seem that they could save anyone makes the moments of triumph—and even the understanding that graduation creates its own anxieties—powerfully emotional.