High school can be hell when you’re a teenager, so just imagine how maddeningly frustrating it must be when you’ve entered adulthood. Andrew Cohn’s up close & personal documentary Night School follows three black adults living in Indianapolis — a city with one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country — trying to earn their high school diplomas. There’s Greg, who dropped out as a youth to sell drugs, and now wants to find a job in order to better care for his young daughter who suffers from epilepsy. There’s Shynika, who dreams of being a nurse while working shifts at Arby’s and becomes engaged in a work strike to raise the minimum wage. And there’s Melissa, who goes bowling on date night and just can’t seem to master algebra.
Night School tracks these three over the course of a year, showing the ups and downs (mostly downs) that greet them along their journey. It’s an inevitably uplifting story, because it’s hard not to root for these individuals, all three of whom are clearly working their damnedest to better themselves and their situations.
While there are occasional confessional-style interviews with the subjects, director Cohn primarily takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, hanging back and letting the individuals go about their days. Yet Cohn also finds a way to make it incredibly cinematic — almost too cinematic, in fact. Filming over a year, Cohn likely had a plethora of footage to work with, and this results in complete character arcs for his lead subjects — we see them all grappling with their own little personal troubles, such as the subplot where Shynika gets involved with a group of fast food workers who want to stage a strike to raise the minimum wage. There are also moments where people stop what they’re doing and give speeches, such as when a teacher at the Excel Center, where the subjects are attending classes, dramatically tells a student to “stop running” from his problems. It seems almost staged, but it’s not, which lends a unique power to the proceedings.
It all builds to the big final exam the students must take to earn their diplomas, complete with dramatic tension and the potential for a feel-good ending. Yet one can’t help but think Cohn is possibly over-simplifying things here, implying that once these three earn their high school diplomas all their problems will be solved. Life isn’t that simple, of course, but then again we can only take things one day at a time, even when planning for the future. Perhaps it is enough to focus only on this one victory, and worry about the other struggles at another time. In the end, Night School is a film the exudes empathy, something that’s in short supply; something we could all use more of.