Sundance 2021 – Homeroom

There’s plenty for director Peter Nicks to document, from the efforts from student leadership trying to get the police out of schools, to the pandemic and having to complete their year virtually, to the Black Lives Matter movement’s impact on these students, to the general hardships of being a teenager preparing to graduate. It’s a lot to touch on and juggle through, but the ambition to try to do everything ends up making each avenue feel underdeveloped. If it had picked any one of these things to primarily focus on, something special could have emerged. Instead, it feels stretched thin as it tries to be all things 2020. As the film progresses, there’s a sinking feeling that this isn’t really going anywhere. It’s just buying time to try to wing out something inspirational to end on.

Homeroom follows the turbulent 2019-2020 school year for an Oakland high school, as student leadership works to eliminate the police department from their school system and deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Nicks is adept at being a fly on the wall, you never feel like the students he’s following even register he’s there, allowing them to be authentic and intimate in front of the camera. Dinelson Garibo, the head of the student leadership in the school board, is the closest we get to a lead character here, and the film is all the more immediate and important when he’s on screen. You curiously don’t feel like you really got to know some of these students as well as you would have liked to, and it leaves you with a sort of empty feeling because you just never even really got to attach yourself to these kids.

The lack of focus brings down what could have been something quite interesting. Nicks never feels sure of where he’s taking this whole thing. Certain sequences feel more like a video montage of the year they play at graduations than something integral to the film. It’s ultimately at its best when it focuses on the efforts to eliminate the Oakland police department from the school system. It takes a long time to circle back around to those efforts, and when it finally does it just further shows that this was the path it should have focused on all along. Nicks is clearly a skilled documentarian in his ability to not interfere, and I am eager to check out his previous work. I just wished he would have interfered a bit more on the structure of his own film instead of trying to overstretch the focus.

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