Editor’s note: This review was previously published from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Homeroom is now streaming on Hulu.
Documentaries that follow students over the course of one school year aren’t exactly few and far between, but in Homeroom director Peter Nicks accidentally hit upon a unique angle: the 2019-2020 school year. Indeed, while 2020 was a terrible, terrible year for just about everyone, it was uniquely terrible for high school seniors, and Nicks’ new documentary – which just premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival – offers a verité look at the lives of a number of students at Oakland High School as their anxieties over test scores, their futures, and student government proposals is further complicated by the arrival of a global pandemic and traumatizing racial injustices.
Nicks could not have possibly known what he was getting into when he started Homeroom, but the film is certainly compelling well before the pandemic hits. It’s the third in a trilogy of verité documentaries made by Nicks, with 2012’s The Waiting Room focusing on the uninsured in the American healthcare system and 2017’s The Force embedding within the Oakland Police Department. But Homeroom kind of encapsulates everything as students at Oakland High School are faced with daily anxieties that touch on every aspect of life in America.
A main throughline of the film is the student government’s push to abolish the school police department, arguing that their presence is threatening and traumatizing to the students at the school (most of whom are people of color). A couple of ambitious, passionate and smart advocates try to reach the adult members of the school board, but are met with resistance. And in one of the documentary’s tensest scenes, members of the Oakland Police Department visit the school to answer questions and unironically bust out the “few bad apples” metaphor. Nicks’ camera captures not just the students’ distrust within this moment, but also their unease. Even in a formal question and answer setting, the kids are terrified of these cops.
As the school year progresses, the film also touches on anxieties over test scores and these kids’ futures, and in the wake of disappointing results the cameras capture frank and shockingly self-aware conversations between the students as they discuss how unstable home lives and financial insecurity have contributed to their low performance in school. One student makes the astute point that survival always comes first, and kids cannot be expected to focus on their school work if they feel unsafe or unsure at home – if they even have a home to go to. Another talks about how gentrification in the Oakland area has forced his family to move three times. These scenes further underline how we don’t give today’s youth enough credit – they may be buried in their phones, but that doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention.
When the pandemic hits and the school shuts down, Nicks does a great job of embedding social media posts to keep tabs on the students while things unfold, but the cameras return in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and as the Black Lives Matter protests erupt across the country in the summer of 2020. We watch as the students who were originally fighting for their safety at their own school are now forced to take to the streets to fight for racial justice across the country. It’s at once sobering and inspiring. Throughout the film kids are shown on their phones, scrolling through Instagram, alternating between goofy posts from their friends and literally watching police brutality unfold before their very eyes, their reactions unchanged not because they don’t care, but because to them this is life in America.
Perhaps Homeroom’s greatest triumph is how it forces the viewer to check their privilege. You think you had a bad 2020? Try being Black or Latino or Asian in America. Especially at a young age, watching peers and mentors become victims of an unjust society is demoralizing. But these kids keep moving forward, keep pushing, keep fighting. It’s not just inspiring, it’s hopeful. This is America’s future.
As with any verité film, Homeroom relies on the actual events that unfold for its story, and thus is maybe a bit less focused in its first half than its second. But that’s merely an effect of the storytelling format and nothing more, and thus is not really a fault of the film’s. Nicks does a swell job of forming a cohesive narrative while remaining an observer of truth, and the kids at the film’s center will linger long after the credits roll.
I’m not sure if any other documentary filmmakers were on track to follow students through the 2019-2020 school year, and no doubt plenty grabbed their cameras once the pandemic started. But Homeroom certainly feels unique in that it intimately captures the before, during, and after in the lives of a handful of seniors who keep fighting for change no matter the circumstances, no matter how many people tell them their protests are fruitless. And it’s well worth watching for that reason alone.