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“This is one of the rougher areas of Indianapolis. The point in coming here is to get your diploma, get a certification to go to work, and break that cycle of poverty.” So says Bryan Daniel—a counselor at The Excel Center—early on in Andrew Cohn’s new documentary Night School. The Excel Center is a public high school for adults that offers a full diploma rather than just a GED. “A GED is only slightly better than a dropout in terms of long-term earnings,” Excel Center principal Brent Freeman tells the camera.

The three adult students Night School follows over the course of a year all seem to be stuck in that cycle of poverty. There’s Gregory, a single father who’s trying to overcome a criminal past and get his diploma so that he can land a stable job. Likewise, Shynika—working a minimum wage fast-food job while living in either her car or the homes of her friends—is eager to earn her diploma and become a nurse. The amount of effort they’re willing to expend in order to change their lives is staggering, but also evident of the way the deck is already stacked against them. Going to school is time-consuming enough, but combining that with supporting a child, expunging a criminal record, or finding a place to sleep is, simply put, overwhelming. The intimate access Cohn was granted by his subjects (he shot over 700 hours of footage) really shines through; watching Gregory and Shynika work to juggle everything gives the viewer a small, but significant taste of how frustrating it is to get caught up in the kind of cycle that they’re spending so much time trying to escape.

Melissa, the third student Night School focuses on, is a bit different. At 53 years old, earning her diploma is a matter of pride. Going back to school is something that she’s doing largely as a matter of proving to herself (and the world) that she can do it. She particularly struggles with algebra, which she’s taken over and over in hopes of earning a passing grade. One can only imagine how hard it is to jump right back into doing difficult math after a break of 37 years. She’s perhaps, the most compelling part of the documentary; Cohn’s footage truly captures her exasperation at frequently coming so close to achieving her goal only to slightly fall short. Incredibly, he was also lucky enough to film a burgeoning romance of hers in a meet-cute that’s so perfect it nearly feels staged – but in actuality, that’s just the kind of footage he was able to get by spending so much time filming the project.

Night School is shot beautifully, often feeling cinematic in scope. In particular, an opening sequence introducing the setting of Indianapolis could easily be mistaken for the beginning of a narrative film rather than a documentary. That style continues throughout; Night School captures the city, the subjects, and the school itself in great detail. At best, it makes the proceedings feel even more personal. Over 90 minutes, the viewer feels like they’ve really entered into the lives of the subjects, in turn making their struggle to make something out of their lives all the more engrossing.

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