Broadly speaking, Night School touches on some of the most pressing social issues of the moment in the U.S.: class and racial inequalities, the dearth of quality education for the lower class, the difficult lives of the working poor. But instead of going the activist-documentary route, Andrew Cohn tackles this subject matter through a resolutely intimate lens. To that end, he zeroes in on the lives of three people in Indianapolis, all of them attending a special high school for adult learners.
All three of these people make for compelling subjects in their own ways. Shynika Jakes, the youngest of the three, is a homeless woman struggling to make a living working for minimum wage at a local Arby’s; at one point, she is approached by a member of a group pushing for a higher minimum wage and finds herself gradually embracing her inner activist side. The oldest of the three is Melissa Lewis, a 53-year-old single mother of one who undertakes this program mostly as a way to prove something to herself. Her dramatic arc in the film includes the unexpected sprouting of a romance as well as certain academic difficulties that threaten to derail her from her goal.
But perhaps the most magnetic of the three subjects is Greg Henson, who dropped out of high school in order to become a drug dealer. When we first meet Greg, he’s raising a daughter by himself and outwardly expressing a desire to improve his life, but his efforts initially seem somewhat half-hearted, especially with temptations—including his younger brother, who has followed in his brother’s footsteps—all around him to revert back to the criminal life with which he’s become all too comfortable. It takes an act of violence committed toward his brother to push Greg to become more focused in his studies—but even then, his previous life still haunts him in the form of a criminal record that he struggles to get expunged.
Though Cohn’s focus on these three underprivileged Americans is laudable, one at times wishes for a bit more information about the school itself, apparently one of a precious few in the U.S. singularly devoted to helping adults belatedly complete their high-school education. Why can’t other cities marshal the resources to create a similar program? In other words, Night School perhaps could have used more activist fire in its own belly to make its personal stories resonate beyond these three people’s individual circumstances. Nevertheless, Cohn’s film is ultimately a genuinely inspiring one, noteworthy in the way it achieves its uplift honestly and without sentimentality.
Director: Andrew Cohn
Starring: Greg Henson, Shynika Jakes, Melissa Lewis
Release Date: June 9, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.