A Different Group of Students in 'The Bad Kids'

Feb 23, 2016

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

High school can be difficult, and for some students, traditional high schools don't work. This is the case for the students at Black Rock High School who serve as the subject of the film, "The Bad Kids."


Situated in California's Mojave Desert, Black Rock serves eleventh and twelfth graders who are looking for a second chance to complete their high school education. Students at Black Rock set their own pace and are supported by a group of teachers led by the school's principal, Vonda Viland.

In "The Bad Kids," directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe chronicle the experience of three specific Black Rock students. Fulton said he and Pepe stumbled upon Black Rock in 2013 while on working on a different project.

Fulton: This particularly place wasn't really appropriate for the job we were doing at the time, but what we saw at Black Rock High School really left an indelible mark on us. It was an environment where they were really looking at what so-called underprivileged kids were experiencing in a very direct way. There's no attempt to hide what was going on with these kids. It was an honest, empathetic relationship being established. Kids who would've fallen through the cracks, would've dropped out of high school, who didn't really have a lot of opportunities in the conventional school system and in this environment were being treated with a great deal of respect and being treated in a lot of ways as equals. I think a lot of times in the educational environment, people are uncomfortable with what these kids go through outside of school. Not the case in this place. It was very clear to us from the get go that honest conversations were constantly being had, and we thought this is a really amazing place and it would be a great place to do a longer form documentary. 

Pepe said that he and Fulton learned a lot about the students at Black Rock through the project.

Pepe: One of the things we discovered about these young people is that they're so much different than your typical high school student. They're not coddled. They do not go around with a sense of entitlement. They are aware that people in the world experience pain and they've felt it themselves and they want to help people who are in difficult circumstances. They're a very generous and empathetic group of young people. I very much feel that one of our big discoveries was that far from being beyond hope, if anything I would say this segment of the population is a group of young people to turn to and support with tremendous amount of hope for what they actually have to contribute to society rather than to assume they're a burden on society.

Pepe said the goal of the film was to avoid a traditional documentary based on statistics.

Pepe: I think on a purely cinematic level, it was always our intention to make a film that would be an emotional and dramatic experience. Yes, it's a documentary. Yes it's about real people and real issues, but it was our goal always on a formal level to have it be something you experienced in a visceral sense. There's no information. There are no talking heads. There's no experts. We wanted it to play out as a drama.

Pepe and Fulton both feel that it will take a human approach to reach kids like the ones they chronicled at Black Rock.

Fulton: There is no curriculum that's going to fix problems like my mother is a drug addict or there's not enough food in the house or I come to school hungry every morning or my grandfather is sexually abusing me or any number of the horror stories we would hear every day from these kids. Curriculum doesn't fix that and I think there is an attitude somehow that a fancy curriculum or a novel, innovative curriculum is somehow going to fix these problems. It's not. These are problems of an impoverished student body, a country where there are millions and millions of people living below the poverty level, how do we educate these kids? How do we reach them? They're an asset to our society and we should not abandon them and I think that's very much why we made the film.

The Bad Kids will be showing on Thursday, March 3 at 7 p.m. at The Picturehouse, Saturday, March 5 at 1 p.m. at Missouri Theater and Sunday, March 6 at 3:45 p.m. at The Globe