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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Night School is an inspiring, sometimes gritty documentary about three students at the Excel Center in Indianapolis -- the country's only accredited high school for adults who want to graduate not with a GED, but with a full diploma. The film follows three of the school's adult learners as they overcome personal obstacles to finally earn their degree. The featured students deal with living near the poverty line, balancing work and school, trying to move past a criminal record, and learning challenges. There's strong language throughout, including two uses of the "N" word (said by an African American man), and several scenes of adults smoking cigarettes, drinking (but not to excess), and, on one occasion, rolling and smoking a joint. One disturbing scene takes place at a hospital, where a relative of one of the subjects is treated for gunshot wounds. With strong messages of gratitude and perseverance, the movie should spark a lot of conversation about public education, class, race, and how it's never too late to go after your dreams or attempt to fix past mistakes.
What's the story?
NIGHT SCHOOL is a documentary about three adult students at the Goodwill-run Excel Center in Indianapolis -- the country's first (and only) accredited high school specifically for former dropouts who are looking to finish their degree. The film follows three adults in different stages of life. Melissa, who's in her 50s, had to drop out decades earlier when she became a mother at 14. Greg, 30, is a single dad with a criminal record. And Shynika is only 26 but is the most vulnerable -- working for minimum wage at Arby's and living out of her car or on friends' couches. Each has significant obstacles to overcome, both personal and academic. Melissa keeps taking and failing a mandatory math class, Greg has difficulty balancing the demands of fatherhood with his coursework and is desperate to have his record expunged so that he can find better-paying work, and Melissa knows she needs a diploma to eventually apply for nursing school, but she also gets involved in the cause to raise minimum wage.
Is it any good?
This poignant, powerful documentary about three adult students hoping to finally graduate from high school is a reminder of the importance of education -- and second chances. Filmmaker Andrew Cohn directs mostly in a cinema verité-style, but there's an obvious narrative structure, and each of the three subjects follows his or her own up-and-down journey toward the much-needed diploma. Melissa, in particular, is a reminder of how time can slip by for a dropout faced with the reality of raising a child earlier than expected. The fact that, even in her 50s, she's ready, willing, and able to learn -- even after repeated challenges with math -- is a positive example for younger viewers who might be taking their education for granted.
Greg's story as a reformed ex-con is touching, not only because of how devoted he is to his adorable daughter but also because of how difficult it is for formerly incarcerated adults to move forward. There's a scene in which a counselor explains why something Greg wants to accomplish is nearly impossible; it's heartbreaking to watch. He, of all three adults, seems to have the biggest odds against him. As for Shynika, it's clear she's intelligent and capable, but she's constantly under financial stress that working shift after shift at a fast-food chain isn't going to completely alleviate. These are real people with real problems that the majority of viewers may not relate to. But everyone should be able to empathize with and cheer on these adult learners who are trying to accomplish what their younger selves couldn't.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what makes films about marginalized people who overcome the odds compelling/inspiring. How does watching people make positive changes in their lives make an impact on viewers?
Which of the people in Night School do you consider role models? Do role models need to be perfect people? What makes these adult learners relatable? How do they demonstrate gratitude and perseverance? Why are those important character strengths?
How does the movie address the topics of race and class? How are those topics related to the issue of education? How can people move forward if the odds seem stacked against them?
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