If in José Luis Guerín’s The Academy of Muses pedagogy is a game of seduction, sexual and otherwise, in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s The Bad Kids teaching is a game of life and death. It’s a game that dropouts from a Mojave Desert high school must be willing to play if they’re to end the cycle of abuse, drugs, poverty, and incarceration that have constituted their family histories thus far. And what a difficult game that is, at times even more rigged than the one played by Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Except here, in the despondent aridness of the Mojave, life itself seems more miserable than any encounter with a chess-playing personification of death.
At Black Rock High School, the jobs of teacher and staff involve more than proctoring and grading exams. These individuals also worry about students having a place to sleep, at times personally calling them early in the morning to wake them up or arriving at their homes to give them rides. Administrators give out milk and cookies as students come into school, as well as pep talks and plenty of hugs. They’re also in constant contact with students’ parole officers. Throughout the film, we mostly follow the plight of a teenage father, Lee, and his girlfriend, Layla, as well as Joey, a musically talented kid who’s on and off probation. But it’s the school’s principal, Vonda Viland, with her relentless determination and impenetrable face, who links these stories, and allows for the film to become an actually cinematic experience.
The elements that would lead someone to drop out of high school are quite clear throughout The Bad Kids, though it’s much more difficult to pinpoint what drives Principal Viland’s pedagogical passion. What’s in it for her? Why does school seem to be her life? For Raffaele Pinto, the philology professor of Guerín’s film, the pleasures of teaching are unmistakable, and unmistakably erotic. In Fulton and Pepe’s documentary, the principal’s motivation is more cryptic, which makes her even more fascinating. Principal Viland only responds a few times to her students’ unadorned frailty with a similar kind of self-exposure. At one point she says that the belligerent student in front of her is “me 40 years ago.” Later, she speaks of a note from her father, which she found after his death, that disclosed the fact that she’d been an unwanted child. This is just enough information to portray her as a complicated persona, and without reducing her complication to some kind of identifying desire.
While the real heroes of the documentary might be the kids, its real muse is the stoic, unflappable, unstoppable Principal Viland, who is neither maternal nor paternal, neither coldly institutional nor oppressively police-like. But as with most pedagogy, there’s an inevitably perverse layer in the high school’s modus operandi, as in the school’s profusely congratulatory ceremonies for when people graduate or earn lots of credits, and to the shame of many peers who didn’t quite manage the same accomplishments. In one scene, Principal Viland hands out certificates to “super honor roll” students, including Layla, and in front of an overwhelmed Lee, who’s considering dropping out of school. It’s a strange moment when Layla goes to the front of the room to get her diploma while Lee bangs his head repeatedly against a chair, laughing in a type of terrorizing embarrassment—and jealousy.
In this context, the moment raises questions about the limits of pedagogy—how can teachers be therapists?—and the school’s tactlessly American insistence in remedying despair through the production of an aura of success, rather than addressing the causes of failure. The teenagers’ symptoms are often masked, or displaced, by the thrill of credits and the statistical promises attached to a diploma. In a meeting with Joey, Principal Viland suggests that once the kid starts seeing credit slips “rolling in” he’ll stop drinking or using drugs. Yet, she knows quite well the limits of the entire pedagogical enterprise, telling him later, “Joey, I can’t fix the home life. I can’t fix that.”