As an early title card informs us, “Homeroom follows the senior class of Oakland High School through the 2019-2020 School Year.” That’s a solid plan for a documentary film–senior year is typically an eventful time for high school students, with spontaneous story lines emerging wherever you look—and the choice to follow this particular senior class turned out to have the added attraction (and complication) of capturing student and staff response to a worldwide pandemic that abruptly shut down in-person schooling and turned their graduation into a virtual event.
Homeroom is the final of three films about Oakland institutions directed by Peter Nicks, following The Waiting Room (2012; about Highland Hospital) and The Force (2017; about the Police Department). Of the three, Homeroom has the most immediately relatable subject, since nearly everyone goes or has gone to school, while not everyone has been in the hospital or has had dealings with the police department.
As in The Waiting Room and The Force, Nicks takes an observational approach to his subject, creating meaning through the selection and arrangement of materials without the imposition of narration or obvious signposting. It’s a film made in the editing suite, in other words, and one for which, quite appropriately, editors Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno won the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Homeroom feels something like a Frederick Wiseman film in miniature, and I mean that in the nicest way possible—this film runs 90 minutes, as compared with, say, the 272 minutes of Wiseman’s 2020 film City Hall, and the individual segments of Homeroom are also far shorter than are those of a typical Wiseman film.
You might expect a film about a high school to spend a lot of time in the classroom, but that’s not the case with Homeroom. Academic work does make an appearance, and some students are clearly serious about their studies, and there’s even the obligatory glimpse of students checking for college acceptances). On the whole, however, Homeroom is more interested in what students are doing when they’re not in class, and when it does venture into the classroom, doesn’t not shy away from showing students goofing around and playing with their phones rather than listening to their teachers. This is probably a fair reflection of student focus, as Oakland is no Lowell High, and the interests and goals of the students are naturally more varied in an average public school rather than one in which students are selected through a competitive admission process. The film also shows some students in their homes, and socializing (and demonstrating) outside of school, adding more layers to its portrayal of their lives.
In the first half of the film, the issue of having city police in the schools comes up frequently (Oakland High has a dedicated police department, unlike any other school in its district). The debate is a microcosm of that around the “defund the police” movement at large—one side argues that the police keep everyone safe (and in at least one case defends the force because of relatives working for it), while the other sees police as an abusive, oppressive force, and thinks the money could be better spent elsewhere. Then the first news of COVID-19 arrives and quickly becomes the focus of the film. Student-created social media, although used throughout Homeroom, becomes even more central as students no longer meet each day in person—although, again, the focus is more on socializing and communicating about political issues, including police violence against people of color, rather than academics. If you want to know how classes were held in the early days of the pandemic, or what the students thought about them, you won’t find your answer Homeroom. In the end, Homeroom is not so much about the inner workings of Oakland High School as an institution as it is a portrait of a particular group of students enrolled in that particular school at a particular time in history. | Sarah Boslaugh
Homeroom is available for on-demand viewing as part of the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs June 2-6, 2021. Further information about festival passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.