Best Kept Secret

Best Kept Secret


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

“You’ve reached John F Kennedy High School, Newark’s Best Kept Secret,” say staff answering the phone at JFK High School in Newark. It's a proud declaration from a school that has every reason to be proud, but it also hints at something else: what the school does is something most of society looks away from. It's a place for young people with serious disabilities. Janet Mino's class is made up of young men severely affected by autism. Janet is determined to give them the skills they need to live as independently as possible. But we're not talking living alone and entering the mainstream job market, here. We're talking anything that will save them from complete isolation or decades in an institution.

The work Janet does is hard and allows no room for error. When one of the kids misses a day, he's likely to forget everything he learned the day before. Tasks range from understanding how money works to learning the proper way to respond to a greeting. Some of the kids are non-verbal but can write or use electronic devices to help them communicate. Along with the disadvantages presented by their autism, many of them have difficult backgrounds and other kinds of prejudice to contend with. They're poor, black, inner city kids. One has been abandoned by his drug-addicted mother. Another has a mother who loves him but is too ill to cope and only sees him occasionally. They're all past the 'cute' stage where autistic kids attract charity and affection; they've reached the stage where most people prefer to pretend they don't exist.

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If all this sounds pretty grim, you're in for a surprise. These are some of the nicest kids whose stories have ever been told on screen. Thanks in part to Janet's relentless positivity, they approach life with enthusiasm, excitement and humour. Every new achievement is celebrated as such. Over the course of the documentary, their personalities come through strongly, showing them as complex individuals keen to engage with the world. All they want is the opportunity to use the abilities they have. This kind of dedication is as inspiring to witness as Janet's own, and it also makes for an entertaining film.

Best Kept Secret is also an influential film. It has already had an impact on how politicians in New Jersey are approaching the issue. Director Samantha Buck hopes it will raise awareness more widely.

Anybody who ever had problems at school will wish they'd had a teacher like Janet, a formidable woman who is endlessly patient with thee kids but refuses to give an inch elsewhere. What breaks her heart is that she knows she won't be able to help them when they graduate. She'll have another class then that will need all her attention.

If you go to see this film, watch it all the way to the end. The final lines deliver a blow that completely shifts the tone and draws out another meaning from the title.

This is one secret that deserves to be shouted about.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2013
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A teacher working with young people who have severe learning difficulties attempts to prepare them for life in the wider world.

Director: Samantha Buck

Writer: Francisco Bello, Samantha Buck

Starring: Janet Mino

Year: 2013

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: US


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