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.

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

  • Toronto Film Festival Lineup

    Toronto Film Festival: 'Joker,' 'Ford v Ferrari,' 'Hustlers' Among Big Premieres

    This year’s Toronto Film Festival will feature super-villain origin stories, splashy literary adaptations, and Tom Hanks as the most beloved performer in children’s television. The Canadian celebration of all things movies unveiled its 2019 lineup on Tuesday, and it appears to be an eclectic mixture of glossy awards bait, auteur-driven indies, and populist crowd-pleasers. It’s [...]

  • Sylvester Stallone Variety Cover story

    Sylvester Stallone Feels Robbed of an Ownership Stake in 'Rocky': 'I Was Furious'

    Sylvester Stallone shares an uncanny, symbiotic connection with Rocky, the underdog boxer character he created four decades ago — a kindred spirit who served as his creative muse in spawning one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises. In his long career Stallone also played another memorable screen role — John Rambo — but Rocky was [...]

  • Beware of Children

    First Trailer Released for Venice Days Entry 'Beware of Children' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the first trailer for Dag Johan Haugeruds’ politically and socially charged drama “Beware of Children,” which premieres as part of the Venice Film Festival’s Venice Days section. The pic, which is being sold at Venice by Picture Tree Intl., features the dramatic aftermath of a tragic incident in [...]

  • The Tower animated film about Palestinians

    ‘The Tower’ Animation Wins Japan's Skip City Festival

    “The Tower,” Mats Grorud’s animation about the plight of the Palestinians, as viewed through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl in Beirut, won the grand prize in the international competition at the 16th edition of Skip City International D-Cinema Festival. The film also scooped the section’s audience award. The Skip City festival, which launched in [...]

  • For web story

    Transgender Immigrant Pic 'Lingua Franca,' Thriller 'Only Beasts' to Bow at Venice Days

    New York-based Filipina filmmaker Isabel Sandoval’s “Lingua Franca,” about a transgender immigrant, is among 11 competition entries, all world premieres, that will launch from the Venice Film Festival’s independently run Venice Days section. The only U.S. entry set to compete in the section modeled on Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, “Lingua Franca” is Sandoval’s third work. It [...]

  • Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big

    Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big At Durban FilmMart Awards

    DURBAN–Female-driven narratives and daring portraits of queer culture around the continent were the big winners at this year’s Durban FilmMart (DFM), the industry program of the Durban Intl. Film Festival, which handed out awards at a ceremony Monday night at the Southern Sun Maharani Hotel. Among the prize-winners were the story of a Zimbabwean woman [...]

  • Oscar Nominations Reactions Phyllis Nagy

    Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy Runs for Writers Guild Presidency, Citing Agency Stalemate

    Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is challenging Writers Guild of America West’s incumbent president David Goodman, citing his handling of the bitter stalemate between the WGA and Hollywood agents. Nagy announced her candidacy online Monday night, a day before the deadline for filing. She made the announcement  in a private online group as part of Writers for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content