Gay couple with Philly ties reshapes meaning of ‘bad kids’

The inspiring new documentary “The Bad Kids,” directed by married filmmakers Lou Pepe (a Philly native) and Keith Fulton, opens Jan. 13 at the AMC Loews Cherry Hill. The film chronicles a year in the life of the students, faculty and administration of Black Rock High School, an alternative public school in California at which kids study and graduate at their own pace. Fulton and Pepe focus on several of the school’s 120 students, following three in particular: Joey, whose mother is a drug user, and her son is following in her footsteps; Lee, a teenage father, whose girlfriend also attends Black Rock; and Jennifer, who has been sexually abused by her grandmother’s partner. 

The filmmakers show not just the struggle these kids go through trying to balance the demands of life and schoolwork, but also the heroic efforts of principal Vonda Viland, who takes a personal interest in every student — past, present and future — who attends Black Rock. From revealing teacher meetings to private counseling sessions where teens express their self-doubts, “The Bad Kids” shows the benefits of this kind of hands-on education, which promotes structure without structure and helps shape responsible young adults.

The filmmakers, who are graduates of Temple University’s MFA program — Pepe is currently a full-time faculty member of Temple’s Film and Media Arts Study Away Program in Los Angeles — spoke with PGN about “The Bad Kids.”

PGN: What were you like as teens in high school?

Lou Pepe: I was a very good kid who followed all the rules and came nowhere near addressing problems in my life that were remotely like what the young people in the film deal with. I was a sheltered and privileged young person.

Keith Fulton: I grew up in a perfectly supportive family, but I was a bad kid. I was a stoner, and found ways of missing school. I managed to be absent 70 days in my senior year.


PGN: How did you find out about Black Rock, and what prompted you to make a film about it?

KF: We had been doing a series of film commissions and we were charged with making short documentaries about public schools and excellent teachers. We quickly gravitated to top and failing schools where teachers were doing their best with limited resources. One of our district scouts got us to Black Rock, and we were blown away by the reputation of the school and the love and empathy that we saw in the hallways. We realized that with the right attention and low teacher/student ratios [Black Rock has eight teachers for 120 students], those problems can be addressed.


PGN: How did you find the principle subjects in the film, and how did you get them to trust you?

LP: Vonda suggested kids we should meet. We asked kids to tell their stories, and if they were open to being filmed. Joey was on Vonda’s list because she saw he was smart, but he had just started at the school and was having a little bit of friction. Lee recommended himself. He saw us and was open and forthcoming. He was a fascinating young man. And Jennifer was a discovery in the course of filming. She wasn’t on Vonda or any other teacher’s lists of students to talk to, but we saw her around school with a smile on her face and working hard. We were in Vonda’s office when Jennifer was talking about not going to school, and seeing the girl we thought had it all together and dealing with all this under the surface was fascinating to us, so we talked to her more.


PGN: What can you say about the observational nature of making the film? There is a great sequence where you have several kids telling their stories in voice-over. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.

KF: You pinpoint an important sequence for us. It’s a chorus of voices of all the kids, not just [at] this school but all around the country. There are a lot of films about high schools and unfortunate circumstances. Some kids prevail in the end and some don’t. We highlighted three students, but we got a sense of the collective conscious of all the kids, and what they are carrying around.

LP: In terms of production, we made a conscious decision at the start not to do sit-down and talking-head interviews. We did audio interviews, but this was not standard educational film fare — an expert talking about these kids. We didn’t interview any experts. We wanted to interview as many of the kids as we could. We build trust by showing we were genuinely interested in who they were and what they thought. We didn’t want a talky film. That sequence you mention was a way to convey that aspect of that school to our audience and put it in the viewer’s heads that if you call them “bad kids” after you hear what they experience at home, you realize you judge them unfairly.


PGN: Can you discuss your approach to showcasing the kids and the school?

KF: It was important not to Hollywood-ize it. There’s a long line of people waiting to get into Black Rock, and we wanted you to remember there are tons of kids in this situation. You have a responsibility when you make a film like this [to] not have the audience forget the issue and that there are failures. It’s hard to get kids who are traumatized as young children to succeed. We didn’t want people to feel good at the end and forget these lives.

LP: Another thing we were dealing with was that the conflicts of these kids and their movement from the beginning of the film to the end is not a huge thing in the audience’s eyes. Lee’s struggle is, can he get motivated to just earn 20 credits? His trajectory is not a gigantic accomplishment, but for him that is a huge, huge step. That’s what we learned. Vonda knows she has to meet each kid where they are and try to help them improve based on their individual circumstances. The measure of a one-size-fits-all system is why these kids end up failing in mainstream high school.


PGN: What can you say about the film’s impact?

KF: It’s had a big impact already. The school has received donations, and we are taking funds from the film to help provide scholarships. There is a great opportunity to create change when you make a film like this

LP: Jennifer is amazing talking to audiences about sharing the details of her life in the film. She said that for years she was silent about [the abuse] and didn’t tell anyone and she shouldn’t have been. It took her a long time to learn that, and she doesn’t want others to be that way. So by going public, if it helps other young people, then she’ll do it. Because of the trauma, the kids can tell when someone else is going through something awful. That school is a storehouse of empathy. Black Rock students are sensitive and caring young people, and that was something we tried to capture in the film — how they are with each other. I find that incredibly beautiful. There is a shot in the film of two students hugging. It’s not a romantic hug, it’s a “you’re going through something awful and I’m going to stand here and hug you” hug.

KF: The film is inspiring to kids on both sides of the tracks — privileged kids and bad kids. The bad kids find it’s a great re-appropriation of the term, like how we use the pink triangle.

For more information about “The Bad Kids,” visit