‘Homeroom’ Movie Review: Peter Nicks’s Homeroom is streaming now on Hulu. It is the third entry of the “Oakland Trilogy,” which began in 2012, with The Waiting Room, which was healthcare-focused, and ended with 2017’s The Force, which shows the Oakland police in close-up.
Homeroom focuses on Oakland High School’s 2020 class. However, this film is also about policing. The film’s central character — bright, politically-minded, and vocal — wants to make a statement about the Oakland Unified School district’s budget. This, according to our sources, allocates millions to Oakland High School’s police force which is the only one in Alameda County.
Currently, the school board proposes to reduce the services students — especially those on the OUSD board — actually feel they need.
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This is how it all begins. We know the students will soon learn that the world is on the cusps of many avenues for change. They are unaware that they will end their school year with a disconcerting switch to virtual schooling so that they won’t get prom or other senior-year social events. And that the issues that they have been raising regarding police work will become more relevant to a wider population than they could have anticipated.
Homeroom provides a solid but not always incisive view of young people finding themselves and their political identities during a turbulent, unpredictable year. It is a year where their political engagement features a distinct, consistent throughline. Nicks’s observational style is a mixture of classroom scenes, filming the shit and meetings with touches of social networking and room for the less dramatic aspects of teenage life.
There are minor embarrassments, jokes, and the need to be noticed. It’s best when it’s rich in discourse. This allows young people to understand that they are not the victims of slippages in social and political policies. They are thinking, feeling, engaged citizens whose politics are informed immediately by their experiences.
Some of the Homeroom’s finest moments allow these conversations to unfold in a way that feels more real-time. Nicks clearly had plenty of material. Even the most thorough scenes, such as people comparing SAT scores, a classroom discussion about Shakespeare, code-slipping, and whether politics should be allowed in the classroom, show the effects of their condensation. It drains the students’ thoughts of specifics while simultaneously announcing and repeating that they have ideas.
The scenes of students discussing some of the resources that should fund are strangely curtailed and a bit too clearly bullet-pointed. These services, which we see a few hints at, are resources for ESL students. As the film suggests, we only see and hear so much. What matters most is that students are aware and aware of the structures in their lives and what is important to them. Even if the film seems less interested in the real reason these things matter, it is still worth seeing.
This is part of Nicks’ approach which, by being observational rather than predicated upon interviews with these students means that they’re not being asked questions behind the camera. The best observational documentaries make filmmakers’ curiosity about their subjects feel real and palpable. They don’t take the complexity of their subjects for granted. Homeroom is better at being an intergenerational movie about the struggle between the wills and power of young people.
OUSD meetings are a great way to see this divide in action. Adults promise and make excuses and create barriers while trying to convey an openness to listen. One such meeting ends in a negative outcome. Denilson Garibo, Homeroom’s closest to the main character, reveals that he isn’t documented and that this is what he has to lose.
He then turns to the non-white board members and calls them out for not understanding the community’s demands. This is a bold move and the best moment in a movie that often seems unsure about these young people as individuals facing individual pressures with their own personalities and needs.
Nicks attempts to compensate by relying too heavily on social media posts. But even these are brief, glancing. Nicks is trying to say that social networking is what young people use for information, to communicate their passions and ideas, and to get an outlook on the world. Well, sure. Duh.
Homeroom is allowing us to encourage them to listen to these students, being witnesses to their political identities as they form, still molten, moldable, and all the more valuable to see for that fact. It’s almost like a laboratory for the issues we know are coming as if the debates between students and police funding were a sign of larger debates about the future of police funding. The public schools are, of course, only a small part of the communities they serve.
When the inevitable happens, and school closes, and George Floyd’s death pushes people out of their homes, the effect does not make the students appear prescient but to argue for their place in a continuum. One young man said that the Black Panthers, so important to Oakland’s political legacy, were equally invested in education policing.
This, too, feels like a conversation cut short in the film — an item included in the movie to remind the audience about its truth and not a chance for the audience to explore how the students will process it. The film’s intentions were admirable. These moments are so incisive that you wish the film had been more useful.