by Sam Juliano
A high school diploma is now seen as a given in lower middle class America, as opposed to a time decades ago when education took a back seat to survival necessities. Education at that time was a luxury many simply couldn’t afford. The difference today isn’t that there aren’t poverty-stricken neighborhoods or families with more life-defining priorities, but rather that there is still hope for missed opportunities, and that as people move through their lives they develop a sense of self-worth and direction, aiming to make up for what was lost to life’s unavoidable, inordinately difficult challenges.
Today there are opportunities for those who have succeeded in uncovering a time window in hectic schedules that helped to foster a more mature outlook on what it might mean to have a career instead of a job aimed solely at a paycheck to paycheck existence. For his stirring documentary Night School director Andrew Cohn travels to Indianapolis where he focuses his magnifying glass on three people in an area that registers a dubious distinction of having one of the lowest graduation rates in the country. This is not remotely a one-off for inner city environs, and what Cohn means to imply here a la The Naked City is that three scene specific stories are merely a microcosm of a building nationwide phenomenon allowed by educational advances that nonetheless in any case fails to hide the deplorable state of education in areas of economic deprivation and bad luck for being born on the wrong side of the tracks. Night School rightly means to point a finger at urban school districts and the unequal allotment of scholastic opportunities and benefits, but it also accentuates the old adage “where there is a will there is a way” and those willing to psychologically adapt a “water under the bridge” mindset will come to understand their own capabilities are far more pronounced now than when they were toiling in isolation, minimum wages and criminal activities.
To illustrate the common bond of impoverishment, Cohn examines three varying examples: the single father Greg desires to make money fast via the drug dealing route, and inevitably this results in criminal arrests. There isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his young daughter, but this comes with a steep price. Shynika is homeless but still aspires to be a nurse. Like so many in her situation she is forced to compromise, temporarily leaving her dreams to the back burner as she works in an Arby’s setting to make everyday needs met. The most extreme example of time lapse is seen in the case of the grandmother Melissa who at 52 years old needs to prove to herself that what eluded her so many years ago is in fact something she always had the ability to achieve. There are a number of roadblocks in these domestic landscapes, yet all have the common strand of determination, allowing each to finally overcome the economic curse they were born with and which without any direction was left to dictate the arc of their early lives. Despite their commitment to obtaining what long eluded them, they are still ravaged by self doubt, which is only sorted out by a series of meaningful human connections en route to their final destination.
That destination is a wrenching conclusion on the stage of a school auditorium when each adult student, glowing and exuding a “best day of our life” bravado reach an understanding of what it means to work hard to earn something, and that academic achievement may well be the core of that realization. Cohn’s big finale – emotional and inspiring – is not only earned and justified, but is the last stage of a societal metamorphosis that gives education its most meaningful and lasting role. Night School is deeply affecting, and a clarion call for those who believe a similar calling may well be awaiting them.
‘Night Call,’ which screened last night at the Bow Tie Cinemas, is also running tonight (Saturday, the 16th) as well as April 19th and 22nd at the Regal downtown.