Samantha Buck’s documentary “Best Kept Secret” may be the best kept secret of the year.
Not only is it currently the only 2013 release with a perfect 100 rating on Metacritic — a more discerning review aggregator than Rotten Tomatoes — but it’s one of five movies recently nominated for the 2013 Gotham Independent Film Audience Award along with major awards contenders “12 Years a Slave” and “Fruitvale Station.” (Fans can vote on the award until Nov. 24.)
Made for less than $400,000, “Best Kept Secret” chronicles 18 months in the lives of Janet Mino, a New Jersey teacher whose students have special-education needs as a result of autism and other learning disabilities. As graduation nears, she helps prepare them for their exit from the public school system on their journey to becoming independent, self-supporting adults.
“I was on the festival circuit with my first film and saw a lot of documentaries that covered autism. The subjects were very caucasian and a lot of them were from affluent families with private care,” said Buck. “I started investigating public schools, and with documentaries, you start in one place and get curious, so they often lead to a very different place. I found there was a huge issue that was not being addressed regarding kids who were diagnosed in the ’90s and coming of age with no place to go.”
“Best Kept Secret” was produced by Danielle Di Giacomo and its executive producers include Boston businessmen Jason Weissman, Sean Curran and Paul Bernon, the latter of whom produced Joe Swanberg‘s well-reviewed indie hit “Drinking Buddies.”
“Paul and Jason found us on Kickstarter and they had a personal connection to the story. They have family members who have fallen off the cliff, so to speak, so they were emotionally invested in the subject matter,” said Buck. “They helped us raise money and guide us through publicity, making sure the premiere was a star-studded event.”
But “Best Kept Secret’s” best kept secret may have been executive producer Scott Mosier, a Seattle native with an affinity for New Jersey, having served as Kevin Smith’s producing partner for two decades.
Mosier got involved with “Best Kept Secret” through a mutual friend he shared with Elizabeth Banks, who Mosier worked with on “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” Mosier was in the midst of making two of his own documentaries — “A Band Called Death” and “Milius” — when he reached out to Buck and Di Giacomo to see where they were at.
“I talked to Danielle and Sam and they pitched me the project and the story they were going to tell. They sent me some footage they’d already been shooting. Seeing footage that was shot really well and knowing that they knew what they were doing was all I needed. It was obviously a great story,” said Mosier, who got involved pretty quickly after that initial meeting.
While Mosier is best known for producing “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy,” he has been working in the documentary format for some time, going back to producing Steve James’ 2005 documentary “Reel Paradise” and editing the 2006 Sundance movie “Small Town Gay Bar.” “As an editor, it’s a really fun format to work in and I really love documentaries,” said Mosier, whose passion was further ignited by his work on the Oscar-nominated short documentary “Salim Baba.”
While “12 Years a Slave” and “Fruitvale Station” have been showered with accolades and may win numerous awards this season, it seems unfair that those relative Hollywood heavyweights would be competing with “Best Kept Secret,” Ramona S. Diaz’s “Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey” and Tadashi Nakamura’s “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.”
Sure, “12 Years” and “Fruitvale” were made outside of the studio system, but “Slave” was produced by Brad Pitt and “Station” by Forest Whitaker. Art isn’t a competition, though some say that nominating major movies seems to be against the spirit of the Gotham audience award itself. Wouldn’t it be better served by introducing viewers to important, under-seen work?
“My feeling is that it’s both good and bad,” Mosier said of sharing the category with Oscar contenders. “I love the fact that we’re in there against those movies on some level, because the benefit is that those movies bring exposure to our movie. On the other hand, it’s not apples and apples when you see what you’re up against.”
“We’ve worked so hard to get the film out there so it feels pretty damn good,” added Buck. “My producer Danielle and I have been working on this film now for 3 years. You eat and sleep with your movie every step of the way, from locking a cut to getting into a festival to getting distribution. When you look at the other films we’re up against, it’s pretty incredible.”
“Best Kept Secret” originally aired on PBS’ Emmy-winning documentary series “POV,” which makes it eligible for Emmys and other notable awards, including the Oscars. “Secret” was eventually acquired by Argo Pictures, which released the film in New York and Los Angeles for one week in order to get reviews. As it turns out, the only only other film with a 100 score on Metacritic is Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy,” which is a re-release of a 1954 movie.
Buck said she was inspired by Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” and some of Frederick Weissman’s films.”I hope viewers get emotionally connected to these kids. I just wanted to start a conversation and build awareness and I feel really lucky that our politicians, including U.S. Senators Cory Booker, Robert Menendez and Richard Durbin, were able to really do something with the film on a bigger level.”
The trio of Senators were among a group of politicians who hosted a Congressional screening of “Best Kept Secret” earlier this month.
“‘Best Kept Secret’ highlights the heroic work being done every day in Newark classrooms – and classrooms across New Jersey – to address the challenges that young people with autism face when they can no longer rely on the support and structure of our public schools,” Sen. Booker said. “This is an important work that can play a valuable role informing the policy discussion – both in Washington and in Trenton.”
Buck is currently working with Di Giacomo on a feature film titled “The Big D.”
“It’s set in Dallas during the summer of 1980. It’s an identity movie about three women working for the Reagan-Carter campaigns, and it’s inspired by real women who were involved with politics in Dallas at that time.”
“Best Kept Secret” is currently available on iTunes, Amazon Instant and other digital platforms.