AFI Docs Review: “Best Kept Secret”

Samantha Buck’s film captures the plight of autistic students who age out of their school at 21.
Still of Best Kept Secret via AFI Docs.
Still of Best Kept Secret via AFI Docs.

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.

Playing June 20, 6 PM, at the Museum of American History, and June 22, 1:30 PM, at
the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.


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