'Most Likely to Succeed': Sundance Review

Most Likely to Succeed
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A mostly smart and engaging look at education in 21st-century America

Greg Whiteley tackles American education and its discontents in his new documentary

At the beginning of Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary about education and curriculum reform in 21st century America, filmmaker Greg Whiteley watches his young daughter struggle to pay attention during a parent-teacher conference about her recent dip in performance. As the educator spouts off rhetoric stressing the role of homework as a perseverance-builder, the image freezes on the disinterested 4th grader and Whiteley provides a little context. "I know this look. It's a look that says, this is bullshit."

Instead of lambasting his child for not giving proper credence to the institutional process that has been in place since 1892, Whiteley asks a key question. Why has our education system stayed the same while our economy has so drastically shifted due to changes in technology? After giving a brief history lesson about Horace Mann, The Committee of 10, and the influence of the Industrial Revolution, he begins to explore alternative ways of schooling, specifically the model developed by Larry Rosenstock at High Tech High in San Diego, Calif.

Funded primarily by Qualcomm C.E.O. Irwin Jacobs, High Tech High began operations in 2007, challenging archaic measures of success through project-based learning and the development of "soft skills" like confidence, time management and collaboration. Each teacher is given complete freedom in the classroom separate from state-mandated requirements such as standardized testing. Whiteley and his crew spend an entire year documenting the experiences of two freshman classes helmed by Scott Swaaley, Mike Strong, Mark Aguirre and Brian Delgado. The filmmakers are given incredible access to the inner workings of the classroom and are also afforded the opportunity to cherish and question these methods along the way.

It quickly becomes clear that Most Likely to Succeed sees very little point in looking at education reform from a political standpoint. This is a film about parents, teachers and, most importantly, students, namely the grassroots participants that make up all the statistics we hear about on the nightly news. We see their victories and defeats, their excitement and anxiety. While the students in both classes attempt to complete ambitious projects in anticipation of their year-end exhibition (a standard at High Tech High), Whiteley begins to formulate a stronger thesis in defense of this new wave of education practices.

Taking a cue from Michael Moore, Whiteley utilizes quip-laden voiceover, stock footage and graphics to passionately and vehemently argue his point that institutions like High Tech High could be producing graduates that may be better prepared for an economy where human creativity and innovation are the most important traits. With artificial intelligence taking the place of white-collar jobs that college graduates were once nearly guaranteed, he feels these types of ideological shifts must be addressed at a human level first.

Yet Most Likely to Succeed admits that the sample size is too small to make an absolute judgment. Further uncertainty is communicated by parents of students who are worried their children aren't getting the proper balance in an education program that favors depth in one area over thinly veiled breadth in multiple subjects. But Whiteley finds his crucial counterpoint in Samantha, a shy freshman that begins the year talking quietly and lacking confidence. When she takes on the role of directing a theatrical update of Euripides' Trojan Women set in modern-day Pakistan, her class's final project, Most Likely to Succeed watches her transformation with an adoring eye. It's hard not to be impressed with the young woman's evolution into a leader, even if it's perfectly packaged in the editing room for maximum emotional impact.

Nonetheless, Whiteley has constructed an engaging look at how big picture issues can be intimately explored through human confessionals. All of his subjects offer contemplative and honest assessments of their role in a system that might need a complete overhaul to survive. Most Likely to Succeed is smart enough to sit back and listen carefully.

Production companies: One Potato Productions
Starring: Scott Swaaley, Mike Strong, Mark Aguirre, Brian Delgado, Ken Jennings, Larry Rosenstock
Director: Greg Whiteley
Screenwriter: Greg Whiteley
Producers: Adam Leibowitz, Daria Lombroso, Adam Ridley, Greg Whiteley
Cinematographer: Gabriel Patay
Editors: Adam Ridley
Music: Josh Ethan Johnson, Matthew Lurie

Not rated, 86 minutes