Kathy Bruner’s thesis documentary, Last Year at the Crossing, takes a ground-level look at four teenagers in Marion, Ind., who have enrolled in the Crossing, a last-chance high school for troubled teens who would otherwise not graduate school.
The Crossing is a hybrid GED / job-training program that works with local municipalities and school systems to provide an accredited education. The Marion campus, which Bruner focuses on in Last Year, has closed in the two years since the documentary was shot; the ending of the movie shows them moving to a new location, which may or may not speak to the difficulty of keeping the site open. That isn’t to say that the campus was a failure, but it seems fitting: Last Year is a documentary about perseverance in the face of overwhelming systemic challenges.
Bruner lets teacher Roger Younce (now a director at a similar organization in Marion) and the four students — Keegan, Devon, Zariah and Hannah — describe what live is like in Marion at the time of the documentary. Like most of Indiana outside of the larger metro areas, it’s not great. The last industrial sites are drying up, leaving in their place large populations of underemployed residents who are mostly working to survive. The scourge of drug use is rampant. There are kids with absentee parents, parents who can’t take care of their children and a state government that largely doesn’t give a shit while it tries to “attract jobs” by selling off the public’s rights.
But the larger picture isn’t Bruner’s focus, nor is it much more than the distant background for the stories she captures in Last Year. The question asked here is: The world is against you. Are you, too? Younce is the spine of the story, as his years at the Crossing have given him a unique bond with many of his students and a vested interest to see them succeed and graduate. As the school year progresses, Younce deals with the overwhelming stress of seeing students he’s grown to care about fall back into bad habits, poor attendance, drug usage and unexpected pregnancy.
“I guess my mood this week is somber,” he says, as the Christmas season approaches and the difficult reality of some students’ trajectories comes into view. His job is to help them earn educations and he takes the responsibility personally.
Last Year is frustrating in just the right way. The organization never becomes the point of the documentary. This is not an advertisement or a mission movie, although the educational system emphasizes faith-based education and operates in some ways like a youth group setting. There is no self-righteousness. Instead, Bruner has delivered an efficient, emotional documentary that captures the difficulty of doing good work for yourself and others. It’s a story of struggle that doesn’t end in elation or catharsis, only the acceptance that doing the best for others and inspiring hope is a neverending cycle — semester to semester, school year to school year.
Last Year at the Crossing is an Indiana Spotlight Finalist at the 2019 Heartland Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.
5 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 15 – AMC Castleton Square Theater 9
12:15 PM p.m., Saturday, Oct 19 – AMC Traders Point Theater 11