Sundance Review: ‘Homeroom’ shows us the kids are all right
2020 was hard on a lot of people, but I feel for youth (especially Black and Brown youth) the most. Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic drive a wedge in their social lives and education right at the time they’re supposed to be forming their most indelible memories and relationships, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many more (most at the hands of police) exacerbated already-existing traumas about racial discrimination and the fractured dynamic between law enforcement and marginalized communities.
But as Peter Nicks’ Homeroom proves, one inspiring takeaway from these tragedies is that the very kids whom 2020 was harshest to might be the ones best equipped to facilitate much-needed societal change. Nicks is a documentarian who’s explored other effects of systems on public life in his hometown of Oakland, California in The Waiting Room and The Force. He closes out a loose trilogy on Oakland’s public institutions with Homeroom, which makes up for some narrative looseness by letting us share in the rage and hopes of a generation of kids forced to grow up far too soon, but who seem very much up to the challenge.
Charting the lives of the senior class of Oakland High School from 2019-2020, Homeroom takes a direct cinema, fly-on-the-wall look at their dreams and challenges, from planning their graduation to applying to good schools. But their everyday teenage lives are also impacted by the prospect of school closures and slashed budgets, exacerbated by the school board’s desire to maintain a multi-million-dollar police force on campus for security reasons (though the reality for the mostly-Black and Brown student body is far more destabilizing and traumatizing).
Luckily, there are some strong-willed kids willing to fight for themselves and their fellow students, namely the leaders of the Oakland United Student Directors for the Board of Education, Denilson Garibo and Mica Smith-Dahl. Garibo, in particular, makes for a compelling protagonist around which Nicks’ doc shapes itself, a confident young man with an idealistic heart and fire in his blood.
Garibo is the child of undocumented immigrants, which makes his participation in activism doubly risky; the mere presence of police puts his family’s lives in jeopardy. But in school board meeting after school board meeting, captured with a Frederick Wiseman-like frankness, he puts the adult members of the board to (literal) shame with his principled stands and fierce advocacy for removing the police from the school and reallocating the funds to more sorely-needed programs (like preparing students for standardized testing).
One of Nicks’ most potent points is that this generation of kids should be allowed to be, well, kids, and not have to be the adults in the room. Take the board meetings, which implode thanks to competing factions of adults blowing them up while Garibo has to sit back and hold his tongue to protect the interests of his fellow students. Or the toothless pablum Oakland mayor Libby Schaff coos to Garibo and Smith-Dahl during a performatively earnest meeting — her response to their cries for institutional support is a patronizing pat on the head for their passion and a cry to “know your power and claim it.” Yeah, lady, that’s what they’re doing.
As a documentary, it could use some tighter construction — when it’s not focused on the OUSD’s valiant efforts to pull the police out of their schools, Nicks floats in and out of other students’ lives without a clear sense of structure, making it hard to glom onto them as characters in the film’s story. We spend much of our time with them in school or at the occasional party, which means their home lives are a mystery to us. Even Garibo, an incredible inspiration, comes across as much as an avatar for generational resilience as an individual with his own inner life.
Still, that’s a testament to how downright compelling Garibo is as a force for change, especially as the film’s latter half takes us into the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of Floyd et al. The film’s final minutes offers up some tear-jerking catharsis, as the kids’ efforts finally start to gain some hard-won victories. But the underlying problems existed before George Floyd, before COVID-19, and before Trump; Nicks makes it clear that, had we listened to these kids in the first place, we’d all be a lot better off.
Homeroom closes with a dedication to Nicks’ daughter, who passed of a drug overdose in 2019, yet another bright young soul cut off at the knees by uncaring bureaucracy and underfunded resources. Nicks’ latest feels like a love letter to her and her generation, the kids who grew up with unprecedented access to the world’s information and to each other — and with the vocabulary and political will to make their lives better.
This review is from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.