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Most documentaries about the failures of the American education system end up, ironically, failing the kids at their center. They stubbornly stick to a point of view about the plight of poor, usually Black, students or the exhaustion of their educators. They line up experts, some more officious than others, to present anecdotes and statistics. The students become emblems of individual triumph, their stories lessons in hope.
Dan Chen’s Accepted thankfully avoids these pitfalls. Premiering at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, the brilliant documentary follows four high-schoolers at T.M. Landry College Preparatory, an unconventional K-12 day school in rural Louisiana known first for sending its graduates to the country’s most elite institutions and then for the scandal that exposed its methods. By focusing on the students’ stories, honoring their choices and leaving considerable room for their ambivalence, regret and uncertainty, the doc provides a sobering and emotional look at what, if any, options exist for those who aren’t white or wealthy in an unequal system.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Director: Dan Chen
Accepted roughly follows a three-act structure, beginning with a montage of clips of T.M. Landry’s now-infamous viral videos, in which some of the school’s students anxiously check their college admission status while surrounded by peers. In retrospect, these videos possess a staged quality: The student, sitting in front of a computer, is always wearing apparel advertising their top-choice college. Their classmates, hovering with phone cameras, bite their lips in nervous anticipation as the student clicks through whatever portal will determine their fate. There is always a pause and then an eruption of screams and cheers.
In the eyes of the world, T.M. Landry was a miracle and Mike and Tracey Landry, the founders, saviors. The school recruited and attracted students, all working-class, most of them Black, who had struggled at other institutions. It didn’t matter that T.M. Landry’s classes were held in an abandoned warehouse in Beaux Ridge, La., that they did not use textbooks, that tuition could cost up to $675 a month — or even that in their call-and-response morning gatherings Mike would ask the students to say “I love you” in different languages, including “Mikenese.” (The response to that one, curiously, was “kneel.”)
All that apparently could be overlooked because every year, the Landrys ensured that the seniors were admitted to Yale, Harvard, Stanford and other prestigious colleges and universities. They believed in their students, and wanted to see them win.
It was the chance to be in this kind of confident environment that initially attracted Alicia Simon, Adia Sabatier, Isaac Smith and Cathy Bui to T.M. Landry. For Alicia, a voracious reader, attending the school meant she could be with more Black kids and find social acceptance; for animal lover Adia, Landry would “fix everything” and help her navigate the grief she felt after losing her parents and sibling (the film is sparse on details about their deaths); Isaac wanted to follow in the footsteps of his brother, who also attended the school; Cathy thought it would give her and her disabled older sisters, whom she takes care of, a chance at a better life.
The film’s second act chronicles the impact of the harrowing New York Times investigation by Erica L. Greene and Katie Benner, which revealed the school and its founders to be frauds. The journalists reported that the Landrys falsified transcripts and college applications and emotionally and physically abused their students, forcing them to kneel on rice as punishment, berating and, according to some sources, choking them. Parents of students and alumni also told the reporters that no real learning happened at the school, comparing it to a glorified day care.
The doc makes clear that the students, to some degree, knew what was happening, but the Landrys fostered a culture of fear that made it difficult to speak up. Although the couple has denied any wrongdoing, the Times story ruined the school’s reputation. The illusion had been shattered, imbuing the four students at the doc’s center with enough confidence to transfer out.
Chen captures his subjects with poignant sensitivity. Accepted is not just a documentary about high-achieving kids trying to beat the odds; it’s also a considered and affecting coming-of-age story. During the individual interviews, the camera lingers on the students’ tired and disappointed faces. There is sadness there, too: Withdrawing from T.M. Landry wasn’t just about walking away from a guaranteed future — it also meant leaving a chosen family and embarking on a journey where these students began to question what they knew to be true about the world. The resulting isolation seemed like the hardest cross to bear.
The students aren’t the only ones with complicated feelings, though, and the doc astutely engages with any emotions viewers might have. Chen, with the help of his editors Joshua Altman, Arielle Zakowski and Jean Rheem, smartly echoes certain moments throughout the film, encouraging us to embrace our own shifting opinions. When we hear the morning-meeting chants and Mike’s impassioned speeches again later in the film, they’ve acquired, in light of the scandal, a more sinister sheen.
But judgement has no place here, and before you can satisfyingly vilify the Landrys, Chen turns his attention to the complicity of the U.S. education system at large. The film’s third — and shortest — act looks at “Operation Varsity Blues,” the scandal in which 50 wealthy parents, including television star Lori Loughlin, were arrested for bribing colleges and falsifying applications to get their kids into elite institutions. In examining this instance of cheating alongside the Landrys’ actions, Accepted brings us face to face with the myth of American meritocracy itself. This broader scope elevates the doc, taking it from a good and compelling watch to an essential one.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Production companies: Concordia Studio, Jubilee Media, Boardwalk Pictures, Diamond Docs
Director: Dan Chen
Producers: Dan Chen, Jesse Einstein, Jason Y. Lee, Mark Monroe
Executive producers: Ien Chen, Andrew Fried, Davis Guggenheim, Ryan Hashemi, Dane Lillegard, Laurene Powell-Jobs, Jonathan Silberberg, Nicole Stott, Jordan Wynn
Cinematographers: Dan Chen, Daphne Qin Wu
Editors: Joshua Altman, Jean Rheem, Arielle Zakowski
Composer: Nathan Matthew David
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