Critics' Pick

Best Kept Secret (NR)

Documentary 85 September 6, 2013
By Ernest Hardy
One in 49 kids in New Jersey is living with autism, the highest rate in the nation. That’s only one of the shocking statistics that opens the documentary Best Kept Secret, which tracks the experiences of autistic students and their teachers at Newark's John F. Kennedy High School over the 2011-2012 school year. Newark is the 10th-poorest city in the country, with two out of every five students living below the poverty line. Poverty and its satellites-- fractured families, schools with limited resources, drug use and its consequences-- orbit throughout director Samantha Buck's engrossing and heartbreaking film, but she doesn't dwell on them. She lets their toll and significance become clear in the everyday battles waged on behalf of the half-dozen or so students who are part of the film's focus. The real star is teacher Janet Mino, whose advocacy for her kids goes above and beyond. She's the real-life black equivalent of the "nice white lady" teachers we see in Hollywood films that usually feature the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer and Sandra Bullock. Not yet jaded or worn down by bureaucracy, and using much of her own time (and apparently some of her own money, though the doc isn't really clear on that) to improve the lives of her students, Mino's task is given extra urgency as she races to find placement for kids who are graduating at the end of the term, and thus aging out of the fragile support system provided by the high school. Tellingly, the official bureaucratic description of this transition is "from students to consumers." If Secret can leave the viewer despairing, it's also hugely inspiring, thanks to Mino. She's one of the cinematic heroines of the year.
Samantha Buck Zeke Farrow Danielle DiGiacomo Argot Pictures

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