With its thin light and sparse vegetation, the Mojave Desert is a fitting backdrop to Keith Fulton's and Lou Pepe's documentary The Bad Kids, an unsparing peek into Black Rock High School, a last-chance place for kids close to dropping out of school and, possibly, life. Any high-school staff faces the peculiar defiance of teenagers, but Black Rock caters to kids dealing with abusive or neglectful caregivers or with grown-too-soon challenges like parenthood. Along with the state-required curriculum, the school's teachers and counselors set clear boundaries and give extra doses of support and even love.
Fulton and Pepe focus on three students whose progress and backslides make for a roller coaster of uplift and heartache. We first meet Joey, a guitar master who struggles, like his mother, with meth addiction, as his parole officer goes to his house; his situation is especially stark. We also get quick looks at other students, whose stories are wrenching because their fears and teen angst seem outsize, untempered by the generosity of understanding accorded to many of their higher-achieving, more confident peers elsewhere.
These kids must become their own heroes, but the film's mighty warrior turns out to be principal Vonda Viland, whose sparse eyebrows are like desert scrub, and whose clear-eyed purpose adds up to giving bereft teenagers respect and care from an adult. Desert flowers can be hard to spot, but are often distinctly beautiful, and Bad Kids has them in focus.