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Chew on That: Netflix’s 'Candy Jar' Is a Love Letter to Students

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On-screen media became integral in Dina A's life after she watched Aladdin as a child. For her, the magic of watching stories continues.

Introduction

When the trailer for Netflix’s Candy Jar dropped, I immediately knew it would be a relevant story to me. A story of two driven high school seniors competing through their school’s debate team, it reminded me of another Netflix film I had seen earlier. It was called Speech and Debate. Unlike that film, Candy Jar tackles the cut-throat college admissions culture while it masquerades as a rivals-to-lovers tale.

Plot Summary

In this story, Lona Skinner (played by Sami Gayle) and Bennet Russell (portrayed by Jacob Latimore) are competitive students trying to get into Ivy League schools. To do so, they race to stand out through their college applications. When Lona and Bennet found the debate team, the question of who becomes its president arises. Wary of the tension between these two students, the teachers tip-toe around the conflict by making them both co-presidents.

Throughout the stressful days of their final high school year, the two seniors find solace in the same candy-filled office of Kathy (Helen Hunt). Kathy, a counselor with plenty of quirk and candy, provides a more relaxed worldview of life after college.

Heartbreak ensues when Kathy passes away. Lona and Bennet lose their debates because of their rivaling mothers’ derailing of their competitions’ award ceremony. All hope feels lost until they decide to try out debate as a team. Desperate to make good impressions on colleges, this odd pair has to push past their differences and defeat all other teams at the competition. Can they manage to do this?

What About You?

Robot Debaters

Throughout the film, Lona and Bennet practice for debate competitions. Hardly breathing, they rapidly slip words around their mouths. The two characters explain the rules of debate to newcomer twins Taylor and Tanner. In these debate competitions, students earn points for making arguments and responding to their opponents’ claims. Competitors try to cram in as many words as possible. Part of this approach stuns the other teams. I could feel my anxiety rising as the words whizzed past me.

The most astounding aspect of the debate competitions is how much of it is performative. It is less about what the argument is, more about points and speed. While over the top, the duo from a poor school, whose members are called Jasmine and Dana, challenge the prevailing attitude and expectation of the competitions. Jasmine relies on an average speed of speaking to tell stories of how poverty affects her chances of winning debates.

In the final show-down between Jasmine and Dana versus Lona and Bennet, a distraught Lona unfurls the wound up stress. She asks the audience to question the expectations from teens and their academics. Moreover, she admits that she is a “robot” because she rehashes the same arguments without applying her own personal connection to the topics of the debates.

Context

A lot of the criticism against this film stemmed from a false perception of it being a liberal story. Instead, I argue that Candy Jar is a response to a real problem. As someone who did attend and teach at a university, I can attest to the pressure students face prior to and after acceptance into a college. This is not a new issue. In fact, William Zinsser wrote about this stress way back in the 1970s. He writes in his classic essay titled “College Pressures,” “It's all very well for those of us who write letters of recommendation for our students to stress the qualities of humanity that will make them good lawyers or doctors. And it's nice to think that admission officers are really reading our letters and looking for the extra dimension of commitment or concern. Still, it would be hard for a student not to visualize these officers shuffling so many transcripts studded with A's that they regard a B as positively shameful.”

The pressure is on. Zinsser’s essay reminded me of my time in college. It was a ferocious and aggressive time in my life where everyone was competing for the best chances. No one simple did the assignment or answered a question in class discussions. An unspoken rule was in place. Either stand out or get out. Zinsser’s experience matches up with mine. He writes, “Part of the problem is that they do more than they are expected to do. A professor will assign five-page papers. Several students will start writing ten-page papers, and a few will raise the ante to fifteen. Pity the poor student who is still just doing the assignment.”

Zinsser quotes a dean who muses that this is a harmful approach to those who are overworking and those who are only doing the normal amount of work. Danling Chen writes about the depression that many college students experience in an article titled, “Overworked, Overwhelmed: Depression in College.” Chen quotes a study by the American Health Association where 30% of American college students at 2 and 4 year colleges experience debilitating depression.

This mental state leads to difficulty completing work in college as well as risky choices in terms of drinking and sex. Suicide is also lurking on minds facing such difficulty.

“It's all very well for those of us who write letters of recommendation for our students to stress the qualities of humanity that will make them good lawyers or doctors. And it's nice to think that admission officers are really reading our letters and looking for the extra dimension of commitment or concern. Still, it would be hard for a student not to visualize these officers shuffling so many transcripts studded with A's that they regard a B as positively shameful.” William Zinsser

A Life Rehearsed

The film speaks about the pressures of performing at a certain unattainable level on way too many fronts. Many people assume that ending up in a prestigious college is the end-goal, but as the film suggests, there is life after that. Spending your life based on a series of pre-determined choices does not necessarily equate to a happier life. While Lona looks on Bennet’s triumphant smirk at the end of the film, she acknowledges that she had not expected to like him. Yet, her smile shows that sometimes, a surprise, a hiccup in the plan, can be the cause for joy and comfort.

This surprise extends beyond Bennet, though, because the two competitors ended up in school they did not expect to go to. It is proof that life cannot always be rehearsed. Sometimes, surprises happen and they are not signs of failure. While I do enjoy the film, I think we also need stories about the smart hard workers who don't get into any of the Ivy League schools, and yet they lead happy lives with thriving careers.

Nevertheless, the beauty of this story is in the way it delves into the idea of fulfillment and adding it to the equation of college admissions and, to a larger degree, the transition into young adulthood.

The Theme of Privilege

Ultimately, Candy Jar gives audiences a chance to mull over the privileges many schools and their students have access to throughout their building of resumes and college applications. The winners of the competition highlight its unfairness and the unequal footing students have when it comes to applying for colleges.


Jasmine and Dana are an important part of the dialogue we need to have about privilege and college admissions. How can we make this process fairer? In a way, we need to revisit the way privilege dictates who gets accepted into colleges (and where). I wish there was more representation of people across the board when it comes to socio-economic status, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.


Behind the Scenes

Bibliography

Chen, Danling. "Overworked and Overwhelmed: Depression in College."

http://www.humanologyproject.org/depression-articles/2014/3/9/overworked-and-overwhelmed-depression-in-college . Accessed 1 May 2018

Zinsser, William. "College Pressures." http://www.life.umd.edu/classroom/univ100i/zinsser.html Accessed 10 May 2018.

Comments

Priya Barua on May 15, 2018:

Just watched the movie today. It was a good movie; very relatable.