Best Kept Secret follows a class of autistic students at John Franklin Kennedy, a special-needs public school in Newark, New Jersey, in the year leading up to their graduation. “Graduation,” however, is a euphemism. At 21, special-needs pupils age out of the system. After years of speech therapy and one-on-one attention, many JFK alums wind up in institutions or are shut in at home with little social stimulus. Teacher Janet Mino and her colleagues call it “falling off the cliff.”
Mino, with her wild laugh and intense extraversion, is a natural scene-stealer. Filmmaker Samantha Buck trailed her class for 18 months, interviewing families at home and shadowing the teacher as she works overtime to explore the fates her students will soon face—rote work at a grim gift-basket factory, dull comprehension lessons at a decrepit senior citizen center. Curiously, though, we never see Mino outside of her role as saintly special-needs instructor. If there is a partner, or children, impacted by her singular obsession, we don’t get access to them. We’re privy to the complex conflicts faced by her pupils’ families—one student’s father describes struggling to accept his son as he is; a caretaker diagnosed with colon cancer expresses agony over returning her nephew to his drug-addled mother. Mino, though, is contained to her role in the classroom.
It’s the fate of the students that keeps us locked into Best Kept Secret. We get to know three of them: Erik, Quran, and Robert, each at a distinct point on the autism spectrum. Hope springs when Mino manages to land Erik, the class valedictorian, his dream job at Burger King. While Quran struggles with language, he interacts closely with classmates and is able to assert himself on the playground. Plus he lives with two caring parents devoted to his well-being. Their futures are far from secure, but Robert’s situation is the most dire. Malnourished and neglected as a kid, Robert rarely speaks and mostly refuses to engage. Given these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a good outcome.
At the beginning of the film, we watch a school administrator answer the phone with the line, “Welcome to JFK, the best-kept secret in Newark.” JFK flies under the radar in the Newark community, as does the plight of its special-needs population. Lurking in the shadows of this documentary is another, larger plight—that of a community facing 14 percent employment and a population where 30 percent of people live in poverty. In inner-city Newark, it’s not just the most vulnerable that live on the edge of a cliff. It’s everyone.