Documentaries are often only as interesting as their subjects, and Whitney Blake's film, "Reno's Kids; 87 Days Plus 11" (through Saturday at the Nuart) has a beauty: a real-life "Blackboard Jungle" situation, where one dedicated teacher copes with the "worst " elements of a tough high school.
There's a twist, however. This teacher is no gutsy newcomer battling pigheaded administrators and knife-wielding hoods. Reno Taini, 1982 California State Teacher of the Year--whose Daly City High School Community Environment Education program is the film's focus--has been teaching his Wilderness Classes since 1967. And his battles are mainly waged against inertia, scanty resources and the sapping of the will power needed to keep driving himself ahead.
As the movie shows, for the underpaid Reno himself, the program is practically its own reward. But that reward--and the success of Reno's students in reentering society--can be ample indeed.
Reno Taini, 45, is an ex-football player, activist and expert survivalist. He has the look of the '60s survivor, the relaxed but alert toughness of an ex-jock--and he obviously feels more at home in the forest and desert, among redwoods or Joshua trees, than he does in the graffiti-strewn concrete wilderness of Daly City. His philosophies are simple, traditional; yet, in a way, still iconoclastic. They involve trusting yourself, supporting your community, using the possible and putting forth maximum effort.
His students are mostly the heavy-duty recalcitrants or misfits: too independent, too stubborn or too hurt to heed the maxims and disciplines of other classes. They're a colorful mixture of punks, skinheads, outlaws, sexually abused adolescents and rebels--with and without causes. But in their teacher's hands they blossom.
We see them become engaged, newly dedicated, capable of sustained effort and achievement. Reno treats his kids with neither condescension nor favoritism: in an even-handed, no-nonsense, respectful manner--and their respect comes back, as a dividend. What they learn--in day-to-day jobs and field trips, over 87 school days, plus 11 more on weekends--are the values of self-trust, interdependence and hard work.
Director Whitney Blake is best known as an actress and TV writer, but she and her collaborators--cinematographer Frances Reid, editor Joanne D'Antonioni and sound woman Sara Chin--handle the material extremely well, using the realist techniques of the Wiseman-Pennebaker-Maysles style cinema verite documentary.
The story unfolds easily, casually. We simply follow Reno and his kids around, hashing things out in class, confronting administrators and moving through Taini's intricate rope obstacle course in a nearby forest. (The last of several sessions there--where the kids guide an outside group--is perhaps the one part of the film that needs trimming. By the time we see it, we know the ropes a little too well.)
Reno Taini himself is a fascinating character, full of quiet eloquence and compassion. So are his students. One of them, an unusually articulate and resourceful pessimist named Joey--whose soft-eyed, dark, half-Mohawk style makes him resemble a latter-day Sal Mineo--becomes practically the second star of the movie. Joey's arrest halfway through for vandalism provides some unexpected, and unpredictable drama.
Perhaps Joey's pessimism is too bleak for many of the viewers of "Reno's Kids" (Times-rated: Family--though parents are cautioned about strong language). But it's Reno Taini's special gift never to give up on him--or any of his kids. And it's a special gift of Whitney Blake's film that we're ready to follow him, and them, all the way to the class' end.
'RENO'S KIDS: 87 DAYS PLUS 11' An Allwhit Inc., Go for It! Production. Producer/director Whitney Blake. Editor Joanne D'Antonioni. Camera Frances Reid. Sound Sara Chin.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
Times-rated: Family (parents are cautioned about strong language).