Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Dan Chen
Cast: Cathy Bui, James Dennis, Mike Landry, Adia Sabatier, Alicia Simon, Isaac Smith
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/14/22
Opens: July 1, 2022
The opening scene reminds me of the introduction to “Mulholland Drive,” namely a jitterbug contest that exudes enough energy to light a small town. The equivalent with “Accepted” may be staged, and of course that’s not a problem because a documentarian cannot be on hand to catch the moment a high school senior discovers his acceptance by email and all classmates jump with joy with the lucky candidate.
There’s quite a bit of energy throughout, in fact, mostly led by the head of T.M.Landry Prep, a K-12 school in rural Louisiana, a state that’s at the bottom of the education scale but high up on the numbers of incarcerated Blacks. Mike Landry, a bundle of energy, rallies the students regularly, “You control your destiny” being his watchword, though ironically, given the concluding segment of the doc, we discover that Black kids certainly do not have the same control over their life choices as whites from rich families.
We are told that the school has no homework regulations, yet students often stay from 7 a.m. through 8 p.m. During those hours, they are not dressed in blazers with the patches of their school as school children would wear in some of the fanciest prep schools in the U.S. Instead they proudly boast sweatshirts of their first-choice colleges, whether they be Ivy League like Harvard, Yale and Brown, or others like historically Black Howard University or Louisiana’s Xavier. Classes are held in an abandoned warehouse in Beaux Ridge, Louisiana and somehow the students are each able to scrape up the tuition of $675 a month. But problems develop to such an extent that many of the alumni are asking for refunds and at least one girl receive a partial return of tuition.
Four youngsters are given special time to describe their hopes, dreams and fears, the most impressive being Alicia, who states that she feels more comfortable in a Black school; Adia, an orphan who is an animal lover; Cathy, whose sisters are disabled. You can expect that Black families in Louisiana would have to drag around more baggage than the children of the rich, some of whom getting acceptances to top colleges because their parents bribed the right people or had ringers take the SAT for them.
A New York Times article was a wake-up call. The paper of record reports on corporal punishment meted out such as Landy’s forcing kids to kneel on rice and unsubstantiated charges that some students were choked. Even worse, however, the journalists Katie Benner and Erica L. Greene found that the founders fudged the transcripts (we are shown one student’s record with nothing but A’s and B’s) and “fixed” their applications because allegedly Mike Landry knows what each college is looking for. Even worse, some parents hold that no real learning is happening. So what are they doing until 8 p.m. six days a week? The whole business makes me think of New York City’s charter schools which take interested pupils by lottery or other means, supposedly giving the students better educations than in the regular public schools. Reports continue to come out indicating that many charter schools are no better than standard institutions and are maybe even worse.
There are questions that beg answers that this doc has not provided. For example, given that students are accepted 100% by colleges and 32% by Ivy because of fudged transcripts, wouldn’t the ACT or SAT cut through the lies and show that many kids, despite their falsified grade reports, do poorly on the standardized tests? Are top colleges so hungry for diversity (as the picture indicates) that they are willing to take applicants with sub-prime scores? Also, the film deals with the class of 2019. How did they do in college? Surely enough years have passed to check on whether they succeeded or flunked out.
I cannot fault enough the bad habit that documentaries have, as do fictional films, of intruding on the dialogue with banal music. Do the producers or directors really think audiences would be bored unless there was a concert in the background, as though a TV channel happened to cross with the main arena? Go to a play in the theatre and you would not find the drama needing a concert with the talk. Why should movies, particularly those which are not thrillers?
This is Dan Chen’s debut direction of a full-length movie. Give his background with TV and movie shorts, we look forward to future work from him.
91 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Technical – C (music)
Overall – B-