Documentary Review: Aspiring Ivy Leaguers learn what it takes to be “Accepted” the hard way

In a large, repurposed open floor-plan warehouse in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, a man in baseball cap and sweater vest exhorts his charges, a sea of high school kids whose uniforms are often augmented with college sweatshirts.

But the shirts — Harvard, Stanford, Princeton — aren’t for the state’s football-first schools, and these kids aren’t athletes, Too many bow-ties for that. And the coach leading them through a morning drill isn’t prepping them for sports.

“You CONTROL your own DESTINY…You’re about to change your great great GRANDchildren’s lives! You KNOW what’s at stake.”

Louisiana schools, ranked as some of the poorest and worst in America, aren’t known for producing scholars. But these kids — mostly Black and brown and disadvantaged — are the hope of T.M. Landry Prep, a high school whose claim to fame is getting all its graduates into college, “32% into Ivy League” universities.

At a time in history when prestigious degrees have become the nakedly-obvious yardstick for indicating future success in life, this school is winning the race to changing lower class kids’ futures.

“Accepted” is Dan Chen’s feel-good documentary about an American success story — the school and its businessman and nurse founders, Mike and Tracy Landry, and the kids whose lives are being changed by it.

We hear born-salesman/minister-who-missed-his-calling Mike Landry challenging his kids to “Be aggressive” with the commitment to school work, “make sure you’re taking care of business” by putting in the 11-12 hour days he expects. Landry answers calls re: homework and study at all hours, and we see him leading by example.

The film follows Alicia, Adia, Isaac, Cathy and James through their struggles, hear their classic “against the odds” stories as they shoot for Wellesley, Georgetown, Stanford and Yale. As Oprah has taught us for generations, we’re all the heroes of our own story, and it’s easy to root for these kids. One needs to succeed to create a decent life for her single mom and two special needs sisters. Another’s mother has cancer and may not live to see her graduate from college.

These students are focused, never letting their eyes off the prize.

And then the “feel good” story blows up. The school with the staggering success rate, whose videos of all the kids gathered around a computer and wildly celebrating when this one gets into Yale or that one Harvard went viral, is gaming the system.

The open “no schedule” academics of Landry, showcasing third graders doing algebra on TV, might as well be Trump University. It’s a con.

Or IS it?

Chen’s film, tracking this school through the 2018-19 school year, had the luck — good and bad — of having cameras rolling just as America’s school admissions scandal was laid bare and its academic “meritocracy” myth dashed. Chen seems to be caught just as off-guard as these students, celebrated on TV chat shows from “ellen” to “Today” to “The Steve Harvey Show,” when a New York Times expose blows the whole T.M. Landry thing up.

We have just enough time to wonder why we’re not seeing actual “instructors” working with students, just enough time to think “These kids are exceptional” but “These hard-working folks running this school aren’t,” before “Accepted,” and we its viewers, are forced to reckon with bigger questions.

If these students don’t deserve a shot, where are the tails-tucked-between-their-legs flunkout walks of shame from those who get into prestigious schools and fail? Why should nouveau riche celebrities be able to game the system for their little mediocrities, and working class kids from rural Louisiana, who are putting in the effort, not be able to play to racial stereotypes of “disadvantaged” to get the same opportunity?

What are we not being told about how the upper class, producing more than its share of upper class twits (i.e., the “founder” of Trump University) is operating under a fixed system with rules bent in their favor?

And what kind of country educates its kids and looks for “the best and the brightest” in such a short-sighted, money-matters and patronizing way?

“Accepted” isn’t as thorough as you’d expect (Again, NO teachers are interviewed.). But it succeeds by not offering a simple black and white take on what went on and what is going on with how schools “accept” students and just how arbitrary that unjust system is.

It’s damning, but not in the ways you might expect. “Accepted” offers a “jury’s still out” look at T.M. Landry and its kids, and a serious start to the soul-searching America might want to do over its worship of elites and elitism and anybody who, by hook or by crook, hustles their way into the exclusive schools that perpetuate such elites, merit, “best” or “brightest” be damned.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Mike Landry, Alicia Simon, Isaac Smith, Adia Sabatier, Cathy Bui and James Dennis

Credits: Directed by Dan Chen. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:32

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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