PBS // 2012 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // December 26th, 2012
What does it take to save a student?
Few doubt that there's an education problem in the United States, as our students fall further and further behind the rest of the world and increasing numbers of students get out before graduation. We can argue all day long about the causes of the crises, but there's no one answer and no easy solution. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to fix it and, all over the country, in spite of crippling bureaucracy and diminishing funds, people are doing what they can to educate the youth of this nation.
PBS's Frontline presents Dropout Nation, a two-hour look at Sharpstown High, one piece of the Houston, TX school system that once was known as a "dropout factory." In recent years, though, they have taken big steps to reverse that impression. Their success or failure is shown through five individual students, all with their own various problems, who have been deemed "at risk," and in so doing, show the frustration and difficulty of secondary education.
Coming from disparate sources, Frontline as a series is often of mixed quality, but the one thing that is a constant with the series is its high-grade production. Dropout Nation is definitely in the lower half of the Frontline documentaries that I've seen, but it's a well-crafted piece that approaches the subject from many angles, but doesn't quite get to anything that substantial or satisfying.
The big takeaway in Dropout Nation is failure, which is unfortunate because the adults involved, teachers and administrators, constantly stress that these aren't "bad" kids. Instead, their circumstances make their out-of-school lives miserable and, with little to eat, little to no parental structures, and babies of their own in some cases, all of which makes graduating from high school difficult, at best, and often impossible.
In light of this crisis, with a student population brought up almost exclusively in poverty, the school board brings in a few new administrators with innovative ideas on how to change things. Not Joe Louis Clark baseball bat style stuff, mind you, but hands on, active, and previously effective methods that they believe will work here. While they seem to, at first, they almost exclusively fail. They try, and they try hard, including letting one student stay with one of the administrators for the remainder of the semester to get him out of his alcoholic household. Here, just like the rest, the methods seem to work, until they don't, and the subjects are left there.
In only one case does the student graduate. It isn't the innovations that help him to the end though; it is, in fact, exactly the opposite of forward thinking education. It's the military. Only with that structure, apparently, can people raise themselves out of bad situations and make a go of it. I can't say that it doesn't work for some people; it clearly has, plenty of times. But when a film has five subjects (when, surely, more were profiled without making the cut) and one succeeds by traditional means, while four fail by innovative means, it leads me to believe there's more of an agenda at work than they've let on. At least there isn't any garbage about bashing teachers unions, so that makes me somewhat happy.
Mixed as the story of the documentary is, writer and producer Frank Koughan puts together a good film. It is slick and engaging throughout, and I wondered many times how it would work out. That it didn't happen the way I would have wanted isn't a real detriment, no matter that the outcome makes me suspicious. It's straightforward in both storytelling and style, which I've come to expect from Frontline pieces, and works on many levels, at least better than the way the school is shown to work.
Dropout Nation is a big disappointment on DVD from Paramount and PBS. The biggest problem is that, while the film is in widescreen, it's not anamorphically enhanced. Given that it aired on television in an anamorphic fashion, this seems like a silly oversight that is unacceptable today. Otherwise, the transfer looks fine, as it should, given it was filmed on high-definition cameras, but it can't make up for the tiny, cramped screen. The stereo sound is perfectly fine, though nothing special. The dialog comes across clearly, though they unnecessarily subtitle some of the kids to clarify their accents, though they're completely understandable in the first place. There are no extras on the disc.
Dropout Nation deals with important problems and tries to show solutions, but the almost complete lack of success and unsatisfying ending will make audiences wonder if there's even a point to attempting to educate these teens. If it's all frustration and failure, why try? I don't believe that for a second, but that's the impression from the filmmakers I was left with. I can mildly recommend the film, but the shoddy disc makes even that kind of hard.
Review content copyright © 2012 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site