Greg and his daughter, Khloe in Night School (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The school system in inner city Indianapolis has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, populated by families trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty. But for those who come to realize the life-long consequences of dropping out, there is a beacon of hope. An adult night school offers a high school diploma, rather than the typical GED, but students must bring a commitment to hard work and perseverance to be accepted into the program.

A documentary focused on the important role this school plays within its community would be compelling in and of itself, but director Andrew Cohn has chosen instead to focus on the lives of three students. How did they get to where they are now? What spurs them to make this kind of commitment? How do they cope with all the difficulties and distractions that life seems to throw their way?

Greg dropped out of high school, believing drugs would be his path to riches. Rather than wealth, he wound up with a criminal record and now has a daughter, Khloe, and sole custody. She’s his inspiration to do whatever it takes to have a legitimate career with a steady income. However, his efforts are hampered by a family that views him as a quitter, an outstanding warrant, and the length of time it will take to get his criminal record expunged.

Melissa had to drop out at the age of 14 when she became pregnant. Thirty-seven years later, her children are grown and she’s a grandmother. But she’s not happy living alone and feels as if her lack of education restricts her ability to make social connections. Proving to herself that she can earn that diploma provides a path towards greater self-confidence. She’s almost there, but she can’t seem to master the algebra she needs to graduate.

Shynika is 26 and sometimes homeless. Her minimum wage job at Arby’s does not provide enough income for her to afford a place to live. She alternately couch surfs and sleeps in her car. She dropped out of high school when she got involved with the wrong crowd, but has since become determined to better her life. Her boss is inflexible and demanding, though, making attending school and focusing on her studies a major struggle.

The film could have easily become a searing social commentary on the abysmal quality of education in areas that are most in need, or on a system that traps people into a life of poverty. Cohn, however, doesn’t go there. He keeps his film focused on each individual’s own story, zooming in on the daily challenges, disappointments, and the small victories that choosing to change a life entail. These moments Cohn and his director of photography, Zachary Shields, capture beautifully.

Night School is about achievement, about being the person who wins when so many others lose. Its personal approach keeps it engaging, relatable, and ultimately uplifting. With a caveat for its rough language, this film should be required viewing in every high school.

Directed by Andrew Cohn
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories
USA. 85 min. Not rated