“Homeroom” begins with a somewhat inchoate energy. In this regard, Peter Nicks’ engaging documentary about Oakland High School’s senior class of 2020 aptly mimics the start of a school year. Students haven’t yet found their rhythms. Everything feels a little amped. The kids seem to rush around reestablishing old bonds, forging new ones and, for the seniors on whom the film turns its gaze, facing more fully what’s to come.
Sundance’s U.S. Documentary competition jury presented its editing award for to “Homeroom” MVPs Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno. The film swirls with the buzz of classrooms, lunchrooms and hallways before finding a deeply attentive focus once things so profoundly shift for the kids, the nation, the world. Because the students and the filmmakers of this cinéma vérité documentary had to reckon with a year unlike any other.
“Homeroom” completes Nicks’ trilogy that takes a hard but compassionate look at large public institutions in the Bay Area city, exposing their tribulations and challenges by foregrounding individuals. The director’s 2017 critically lauded “The Force” won the Sundance directing prize for its similarly observant account of Oakland’s police department. Here, in a witty use of public transit, a bus ride from the high school through the city gives a nod to Highland Hospital, the subject of “Waiting Room” (2012).
But this movie’s title is a misnomer. It’s more a signifier of education than an introduction to any one classroom. Although they make pivotal cameos, teachers and other adults aren’t the focal point. Even progressive Mayor Libby Schaff’s kind and avid encouragement of the teen leaders she meets rings mildly condescending: “Know your power,” she advises a group of All City Council reps. “Claim it.” A police department outreach session falls even flatter.
The kids are the documentary’s likable leads. Almost all are Latino, Black or Asian. Among them, Denilson Garibo stands out. (Though it’s hard not to be partial to another kid, who dons a cowboy hat and yellow cowboy boots for his Latino Heritage Day spoken word performance; one of the frustrations of the movie is its stinginess with names.) Garibo’s one of those teen leaders likely to hold a slew of civic roles and even political offices on the way to civic transformation — or burn out. He’s dimpled, thoughtful and — given his family’s undocumented status — brave in his outspokenness. His “Hella Educated” T-shirt signals both his serious-mindedness and his playfulness. He and fellow All City Council student director Mica Smith-Dahl hold seats on the school board, representing the 36,000 students in the Oakland Unified School District.
In a city and a county (Alameda) that increasingly expose income and resources disparities, “unified” counts as overstatement. Over-policing and gentrification are pointed concerns. Even before the events of 2020 that led to last summer’s social justice protests, Garibo, Smith-Dahl, their constituents and other community activists were pressing the board to end its contract with its own dedicated police force. Facing budget crunches, the police are a sorry allocation of resources and — as more than one person underscores — a triggering more than pacifying presence.
There comes a point in the fall when Oakland High goings-on appear to hit a groove. Sure, Garibo and his cohort continue to fight for student initiatives and changes in policy. But kids are also suited up for football, incessantly “liking” and texting on their phones, talking about college plans. It’s the calm before the storm, of course. And there’s something shrewd in the way the filmmakers go about the fall semester without any intimation of what’s to come. “Homeroom” lulls the observer into the intrigues and everydayness of what unfolds on screen. And then you catch yourself and remember which senior class this is and what 2020 has in store for them.
Perhaps the most uncredited, but scenery-munching character in “Homeroom” is the smartphone and by extension social media. There’s no use getting cranky at the ubiquity of the devices, the tilted heads, the flying fingers. The filmmakers make smart use of the material they glean from selfies (stills and video), Tik Tok vids, texts and tweets. Some of the stuff is flippant, flirtatious, silly. One could draw a line from the kids’ obsessive reliance on phones to a tech-industry economy that is helping gentrify Oakland. But the role of tech and its tools gets complicated when the teens use those same devices, those same platforms, to communicate the deaths that lead to the BlackLivesMatter protests, to organize vigils, to grapple with COVID-19 news.
There are moments of levity: Someone uses bleach wipes to disinfect a bag of Cheetos. Early in the pandemic, a sweet know-it-all guy explains the way COVID-19 is transmitted. He’s half right, half the time. And there are scenes of inspired camaraderie: ACC members gather outside after a board meeting that ended with a vote that rebuffed Garibo and Smith-Dahl’s call for making better use of funds currently allocated to policing. They gripe. They bemoan. They regroup.
The Oakland students — and director Nicks — rise to the demands of overlapping crises. With its vibrant if abbreviated portraits and final scenes of burgeoning activism, “Homeroom” suggest that kids may not be alright, but they are very much on the case.