Film Review: ‘The Bad Kids’

Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe offer a sobering look at troubled adolescents in Black Rock, Calif.

Lee Bridges, Jennifer Coffield, Joey McGee, Vonda Viland.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5278458/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_1

Breaking cycles of destructive dysfunction is the mission of Black Rock High School, a Mojave Desert-based institution for 11th and 12th graders struggling to right their wayward courses. Primarily fixated on three students, “The Bad Kids” details triumphs and failures with a clear, empathetic eye that’s attuned to the many forces working against these teens and the administrators tasked with helping them achieve their degrees. Though a tighter focus would have served it better, this Sundance-premiering documentary’s sobering portrait of adolescents on the edge of self-ruination, and of heroic adults doing their best to save them, should have considerable appeal to discerning theatrical and television outlets.

Black Rock is a last-chance outpost for troubled, impoverished kids on the brink of dropping out (if not worse), and directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe chiefly cast their gaze at three attendees in potential crisis: Lee Bridges, who has a young son with classmate Layla Schneider, and whose stepfather is threatening to kick him out of the house if he doesn’t graduate; Jennifer Coffield, whose unsupportive father puts her down for her school achievements; and Joey McGee, an aspiring musician whose unstable home life with a junkie mother repeatedly compels him to sleep on the streets and to use Mom’s drug of choice (meth).

In each case, individual hardships lead to classroom problems, either because they can’t stay awake (McGee), don’t have the self-confidence to persevere through tough times (Coffield), or find it easier to make excuses for their poor performance than to admit their failings and make the changes necessary to thrive (Bridges). As depicted by directors Fulton and Pepe, they’re all inherently good kids interested in transcending their unhappy situations, but stymied in those efforts by lifelong social/emotional conditioning — from parents, and peers — that’s led to negative habits, perspectives and attitudes regarding who they are, what they’re capable of, and how to make something of themselves.

Popular on Variety

Fulton and Pepe flip-flop among their three nominal subjects, all while also briefly directing glances toward other students. That approach conveys the myriad issues facing at-risk kids — and, as in a graceful montage of teens’ faces matched with their narrated thoughts, which culminates with a shot of a bustling hallway and overlapping voices, it beautifully illustrates the similar dreams and fears they all share.

While its portraits of Joey, Jennifer and Lee are wrenching, the film’s true heart is its many sequences involving Vonda Viland, the principal of Black Rock High School, whose days are spent acting not only as an administrator and guidance counselor, but also as a surrogate parent responsible for teaching kids how to grow up. Delivering wake-up calls to students, greeting them as they arrive in the morning, handing out milk during the day, speaking with them in one-on-one sessions, and even getting in her car to pick up those who don’t seem to have a way to get to class, Viland is a figure of ceaseless compassion and selflessness, going above and beyond in order to make sure that her charges continue heading in a productive direction.

When Viland consoles Coffield by recounting a story about her own unloving father, “The Bad Kids” hits a raw nerve of cross-generational adversity, tapping into the ways in which literal, emotional, and psychological neglect and abuse can often only be halted when someone refuses to let the past influence the future. Yet by fracturing their concentration between numerous figures, Fulton and Pepe achieve an overarching sense of such dynamics at the expense of plumbing the complicated depths of their discrete stories. Taking the macro view, they seem to miss out on the types of thorny micro details — about McGee’s relationship with his mother, or about Viland’s own history preceding her tenure at Black Rock — that would have provided additional complexity.

Nonetheless, bolstered by a confident fly-on-the-wall aesthetic and a suitably somber score by Michael Jacaszek, Fulton and Pepe locate both heartbreak and hope in their intertwined tales of people fighting to gain control of their (and others’) lives. And in their vistas of the desolate land in which Black Rock is situated, the filmmakers suggest a sense of confidence in something admirable and precious flourishing even in the most inhospitable of conditions.

Film Review: 'The Bad Kids'

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., Jan. 19, 2016. (In Sundance Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 101 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Low Key Pictures production, in association with the Filmmaker Fund. Produced by Keith Fulton. Executive producers, Ted Dintersmith, Donna Gruneich, Kevin Gruneich, Ari Ioannides, Christine Ioannides. Co-producers, Molly O’Brien.

Crew: Directed by Keith Fulton, Lou Pepe. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Pepe; editor, Jacob Bricca, Mary Lampson; music, Michael Jacaszek; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Fulton; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Michael Kowalski; visual effects, Kritteka Gregory; associate producer, Nancy Blachman, Anne O’Shea, Brian Quattrini.

With: Lee Bridges, Jennifer Coffield, Joey McGee, Vonda Viland.

More Film

  • Sabrina Carpenter

    Film News Roundup: Sabrina Carpenter's 'Short History of the Long Road' Finds Distribution

    In today’s film news roundup, Sabrina Carpenter’s “The Short History of the Long Road” gets a home, comedian Jo Koy’s life will become a movie, “True to the Game” is getting a sequel and APA promotes Chris Ridenhour. ACQUISITION FilmRise has acquired Sabrina Carpenter’s coming-of-age drama “The Short History of the Long Road” and is [...]

  • Stella Meghie

    Filmmaker Stella Meghie on Crafting 'The Photograph' and Being a 'Romance Film Nerd'

    Stella Meghie loves love. And she’s currently feeling a lot of it. As “Sonic the Hedgehog” soared to number one over Presidents’ Day weekend, “The Photograph” made a solid $13 million. Catching up with Meghie early Saturday morning after the film’s debut, the writer/director/executive producer admitted she’d been looking at the numbers. “I’m grateful people [...]

  • Robert Pattinson Margaret Qualley

    Robert Pattinson-Margaret Qualley Thriller 'The Stars at Noon' Sells to A24

    A24 has bought North American rights to the thriller “The Stars at Noon,” starring Robert Pattinson and Margaret Qualley. Claire Denis is attached to direct, and wrote the screenplay with Lea Mysius and Andrew Litvack, based on Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel. The deal was announced Tuesday on the eve of the Berlin Film Festival, where Wild [...]

  • The Speech

    Charades Rolls Into EFM with Pre-Sales on 'The Rosemaker,' 'The Speech' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Charades, the sales firm launched three years ago by former execs at Wild Bunch, Gaumont and Studiocanal, will roll into the Berlinale’s European Film Market with a raft of pre-sales on anticipated French projects, including “The Rosemaker” with Catherine Frot and Laurent Tirard’s “The Speech.” Charades will unveil the promos of both films, as well [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content