Year: 2017
Director(s): Andrew Cohn
Writer(s): n/a
Region of Origin: US

Rating: n/a
Digital, Color, 85 mins

Synopsis: Follows three adult students determined to graduate from high school in Indianapolis despite the fact that the institution has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country. (Source)

A high school diploma is something that many of us take for granted, but for a large contingent of the country, it’s a luxury and a real struggle to attain – this unfortunate fact is the subject of Andrew Cohn’s Night School, taking us to Indiana, where the high school grad rate is among the country’s lowest. Told through focused intimate portraits, Cohn follows three adult students over the course of a year, as they navigate one of the few schools to actually grant adults diplomas and not just GEDs. This is an eye-opening doc that’s gripping and affecting, maintaining a sense of real empathy for its subjects as they fight a faulty system that can feel impersonal and impenetrable. It can be easy to forget how such a fundamental part of our education can lay the path for a future, but at the heart of Cohn’s film is determination and hope against the odds, showcasing a tenacity that’s invigorating while shining a light on the lives behind an overlooked statistic.

The three subjects at the center of Cohn’s film couldn’t be more different. Greg Henson is a single dad who left high school for trivial reasons, but now regrets his past and only wants the best for his daughter. Whether he likes it or not, his past is hard to shake, and his resolve is tested early on in the term, when his brother is almost fatally shot in an altercation, threatening to pull him down. Melissa Lewis is the oldest of the bunch, a 53-year old woman who had her first child at 14 and now struggles with Algebra. She deals with inadequacy issues and longs for connection amidst her trials. At 26, Shynika Jakes promised herself that she’d have her life together, but can barely make ends meet. Her dream is to be a nurse, but tensions at her fast food job pull her between immediate necessity and long term goals. Over the course of their studies these three students balance personal and professional conflicts, trying to stop at nothing in pursuit of the American Dream.

Despite the diversity between Cohn’s subjects, each person’s goals and struggles overlap in more ways than one, illustrating a desire for a second chances or a clean break. These are people who just want to even the playing field, and Cohn’s gaze is nothing but raw and honest, with earnest people doing their best to better their lives. Through each story, Cohn weaves a cohesive picture of what its like to try and gain an upper hand while facing seemingly unbeatable odds. Since Cohn follows Greg, Melissa and Shynika for an extended period of time, the film also captures some great transformations, highlighting the difficulty of their late education and how it spills into already overwhelming personal lives. Ultimately, the film’s keen view of humanity and an immersive perspective cut through, with hope and strength making its way to the fore.

Night School shows how hard it is to pursue late education, but also the rewards of seeing something through no matter the cost. If there’s one idea that sticks the most, it’s that while our personal battles aren’t easy, nothing stays out of reach with the right type of persistence.