Skip To Main Content

The Sundance Film Festival and Peter Nicks’s Homeroom: What a Virtual Film Festival and a Film About 2020 Can Teach Us About Growing Up

Ethan Lieberman '22

With microwave popcorn by my side, cozy slippers on my feet, and a TV remote in my hand, I geared up for a film festival usually attended by artists, filmmakers, actors, critics, and celebrities in Park City, UT. From January 28, 2021, to February 3, 2021, I attended the Sundance Film Festival, which was all virtual this year due to the pandemic. The virtual format meant that films premiered at a certain time and were available for a certain period. Sundance still managed to create a sense of community, with live chats during film premieres, Zoom Q&A’s following the screenings, and an award ceremony hosted by Patton Oswalt. The virtual format and its reduced ticket prices also meant that the film festival was now more accessible to average film enthusiasts and students like me who aren’t able to travel to Park City during the middle of the school year. For the festival’s seven days, my family and I lived and breathed Sundance. We knew this was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In total, I watched 17 films, capitalizing on our February 1 snow day and soaking up the last hours of the festival on February 3 during my free periods and CWPs. After a challenging year, I sensed an electric buzz, comfort, and a feeling of maturity as I watched movies and expanded my perspective on the world alongside others from disparate backgrounds.

My favorite film of the 2021 festival, Homeroom, directed by Peter Nicks, particularly resonated with me for its realism, tenderness, innovation, and the lessons it can teach us about growing up. Homeroom is both charmingly and brutally honest. The documentary immerses the viewer in the lives of a group of seniors at Oakland High School in California during the 2019-2020 school year. The documentary’s use of cinéma vérité (a style of documentary filmmaking that avoids edited, artistic effects in order to reveal a truth or highlight the subjects) allows the students to guide the film’s story, capturing their everyday lives to touch on an array of issues like racism, socioeconomic inequality, police brutality, and isolation during the pandemic, rather than putting forth one clearly-defined plot. This style also meant the documentary could easily adapt to the unpredictability and lack of a clearly-defined plot that was 2020. As we watch these seniors progress and struggle through a challenging, unexpected school year, we ultimately witness their growth and develop a personal connection to them. From a girl proclaiming that she looks like Baby Yoda to friends innocently spreading misinformation about COVID in mid-February, these seniors almost feel like our friends. Homeroom is especially inspiring because it is a story of struggle and victory and the kind of personal growth that comes with that. It addresses the stresses of the college process for seniors, especially those with low socioeconomic status, for whom grades and test scores are a second priority after financial and physical survival. And yet, tens of seniors spend their lunch period in the college counseling office writing wildly impressive essays, peer-reviewing each other’s applications, commiserating about their stress, and ultimately matriculating to great schools and earning scholarships. Similarly, the student council is initially turned down by the school board in their proposal to reduce the number of police present in the school building, who make students feel threatened and uncomfortable. Nonetheless, having gained widespread public support from students and parents, the student council’s proposal is approved by the end of the school year. By the seniors’ graduation, we see just how far they have come and just how much they have overcome. One boy, captured at the beginning of the year nervously rapping to an empty audience, now confidently raps before family and friends at his graduation party.

The very notion of completing high school in a global pandemic is a victory in and of itself and a test of maturity. Amid family celebrations in living rooms and backyards, there exists a sense of comradery, accomplishment, smiles, and tears -- a sense of growing up. These seniors applied to college, challenged their school board, and gained more confidence and a sense of self during a challenging year. Homeroom* demonstrates that this kind of growing up can only be accomplished with a strong community by your side. 

*Homeroom is the recipient of the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award. Distribution in theaters and availability on streaming services has yet to be announced.