This strong filmic “diary” profiles one Cambodian-born San Francisco high school student as he struggles to graduate amid family crises, housing difficulties and other travails. An urban reality check both perilous and engaging, pic is a natural for educational and public broadcast outlets (though frequent expletives may require bleeping). Current 16mm transfer is an expansion of original 58-minute vid cut.
Project came about when 18-year-old subject Sokly Ny (whose titular nickname is never explained) enrolled in doc helmer Spencer Nakasako’s production course at a youth center. Lent a hi-8 camcorder, Ny spent a year scrutinizing his home and school life.
It’s not a pretty picture, though protagonist’s refreshingly frank, intelligent, sometimes despairing viewpoint (often heard via voiceover narration) suggests he’ll break free to adult success. His father stayed behind in Cambodia when the family fled in ’79; his mother lives across town with a much-disliked stepfather.
Ny is stuck in a housing project where robberies and violence induce constant fear, especially for Asian residents. His brother, usually elsewhere, is, it’s suspected, getting into gang-related trouble. The brother resurfaces during move to the slightly less dangerous Tenderloin district, but soon faces court dates for bringing a gun to school.
Despite such bleak circumstances, Ny inspires with his tenacity and eagerness for a “normal” existence. Pic ends on upbeat note via an exuberant graduation dance party and the family’s joy at getting government-assisted entree to comparatively spacious new digs in a safe neighborhood.
Rough tech aspects serve slice-of-life tenor well, and editor Ruby Yang has done a superlative job shaping footage into engrossing narrative form. Alongside “Hoop Dreams,””Frosh” and other recent documentaries, “A.K.A. Don Bonus” provides a tough but refreshing look at the melting pot’s youthful future.