**A Quick review of Homeroom from the Sundance Film Festival. More thoughts to come when the film gets an official release**
Senior year is always a tumultuous time for students. Young people across the country faced with an uncertain world ahead. Not yet old enough to buy a beer or rent a car, they’re forced to make decisions that will profoundly affect the rest of their lives. Certainly this anxiety, mixed with the uniquely youthful optimism and energy must have been on Peter Nicks’ mind as he set out to document Oakland’s graduating class of 2020. What he never could have predicted is what unfolded over the year.
Homeroom is the third film in Nicks’ documentary trilogy examining the public institutions of Oakland California. After tackling the police and health care systems, he has set his sights on the schools. Even before the horror spiral that was 2020, the Oakland School District faced a set of very familiar challenges.
Although the vérité nature of Homeroom picked up on many of the mundane goings-on of high school life in the modern era, mostly the film follows the exploits of Oakland High’s student leadership and their quest to save their school’s budget from massive cuts. Well before COVID and a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, these kids were trying to engage their fellow students to rally against expensive and oppressive school policing.
While the average student of Oakland spent their class hours scrolling through Instagram, student leadership, under the guidance of seniors Denilson Garibo and Mica Smith-Dahl were pushing for change. In a fascinating bit of foreshadowing, they spent much of 2019 pushing the school board to defund the school police.
Both groups of students are crucial to Homeroom. The social media engulfed kids paint a picture of the structural ways in which our world and culture have changed. I’m less than 10 years on from high school and the ways in which young Americans engage with the education system is almost unrecognizable. The change agents are crucial too. Activism starts from a place of passion and energy that is reserved specifically for the young. These forces come together for a touching examination of a generation inundated with information, fired up to do something about inequity and their still underdeveloped ability to speak to it in an entirely cogent way.
Like the young people at it’s center, Homeroom lacks some degree of focus. Attempting to act as a fly on the wall provides a wide breadth of material without direction. While that may be out of an attempt to avoid influencing the trajectories of the students, just the presence of a camera changes the dynamic considerably. It’s quite obvious that many of these kids are putting on a show of the film crew, opting in their conversations more for bravado than substance. In that way, Nicks’ filmmaking misses out on some element of how the students he silently observes are thinking and feeling in this pivotal time of their lives.
Really it isn’t until COVID and the George Floyd protests that Homeroom truly finds its footing. Prior to March, the doc’s aimlessness was especially apparent. A stark reminder of how quickly life unraveled, the film transitions from normalcy to full lockdown over the span of two scenes and about 5 minutes. In those scenes the students casually discuss coronavirus with a deeply inaccurate assurance we all can recall from the before time.
Once school is transitioned to virtual the student activism suddenly finds a purpose. Their once futile quest to reform an unjust policing system circles back around and helps inspire the nationwide protests of the summer. What once felt like righteous but unfocused anger finally found it’s message. From that time on Homeroom feels optimistic about the ways in which American youth, especially students of color, can lead this country to a better future.
Everything comes together cohesively in the for Homeroom end but the journey there is uneven and bumpy. In a sense the film is a lot like the growing up that happens within the four walls of a high school. It may not be the best portrait of the ways in which American education succeeds and fails, but at the very least, Homeroom is a fascinating on the ground look at how 2020 unfolded in realtime. 6/10