The documentary “The War on Kids” has its ambitions, not the least of which is to convey the oppressive, abusive, suffocating and even absurd regime we call public education. School does not look much different from jail, or juvenile detention, in the hands of Cevin Soling, the film’s director.
“Public school is the antithesis of democracy,” Laurie Couture says on camera. Couture, one of several interview subjects in the film, is a mental health counselor, author of an anti-medication book and a strong advocate for homeschooling.
“Who would want to get up in the morning and go to prison?” she asks.
We learn after 99 minutes that schools not only over-medicate kids, they criminalize kids in myriad ways in their quest to keep them safe. The only logical conclusion might be to shut them down and teach all kids at home.
“It’s been a labor of love and hate,” said Soling, before his film’s premiere at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival on Wednesday, March 25 at Village East Cinema in Manhattan. “Hate being the content.”
The movie, despite its message against structure and regimen, is divided into “lessons” that take on subjects that might be better served as stand-alone documentaries. Soling tackles “zero tolerance” policies, school security, drug abuse and the over-prescription of stimulants and anti-depressants to children and teens, the disadvantages of homework and social dynamics at school all in one film.
The most effective arguments in “The War on Kids” come early on. Soling characterizes the absurdity of so-called zero tolerance policies and traces their application in examples as diverse as weapons and firearms in schools, drug possession and much more subjective interpretations. Familiar news reports - students getting suspended for smelling magic markers (drugs!) or others being expelled for pointing fish sticks at their classmates (gun violence!) - illustrate some of the most skewed interpretations of zero tolerance rules.
Superintendent Chester Floyd in Goose Creek, S.C., lends credence to this point of view. Suspecting widespread marijuana use in his high school, Floyd called in a SWAT team. Footage from their raid, which included holding students at gunpoint and forcing them to lay facedown, motionless on the floor, drives home the school-as-a-prison image Soling aims to portray.
This part of the film is particularly relevant. On April 21, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case against an Arizona school, where an eighth grade girl, believed to be in possession of prescription strength ibuprofen, was strip-searched.
After that, the filmmaker seems to run out of ideas and resorts to a series of like-minded talking heads and just a couple students (in a film about education?) to comment on a collection of lightly reported topics.
It goes something like this: D.A.R.E. is a sham. Attention deficit disorders were invented by teachers, parents and psychiatrists who want to control children. Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall made students in one Portland, Ore. teacher’s class drool and otherwise act like zombies. Antidepressants make teens suicidal and homicidal - just look at Columbine’s Eric Harris who took Luvox. (Explanations for Dylan Klebold’s actions were not offered.) Kids hate homework. And social cliques also make kids homicidal and suicidal-with another reference to Columbine.
Given the slew of serious issues raised in the film, the single solution-homeschooling, as expressed by Couture-is disappointing. Home schooling is the way to go, she said, noting that “unschooled” children outperform their publicly educated counterparts.
Some challenge her on this point, citing the importance of socialization, and she scoffs. People are “wired” to be social, she said.
This argument, like the film, falls short.
— Meghan Berry