Tribeca Film Festival Review: Accepted

The education scandal that put the lie to TM Landry's success

It's a familiar story, if you hang around in education circles long enough. A charter or private school turns up in an underserved community, and offers (and seemingly delivers) miracles. Your kid will be the first in your family to go to college. It'll provide the kind of unconventional education that will make them flourish.

What they don't promise is that those kids will graduate. What they don't promise is that the kids who aren't college-bound won't get kicked out. What they don't promise is that the education will be worth anything.

So when the T.M. Landry College Preparatory in Breaux Bridge, La., made it on to the front page of the New York Times in 2019, it wasn't because it was getting kids into Yale and Stanford on merit. It was getting kids into Ivy League schools through falsified transcripts.

Dan Chen's documentary bulldozes through the defenses that the Landries have thrown up, and through the third party investigation that they claimed exonerated them over allegations of mental and physical abuse, over and above the fraud allegations. Yet this isn't simply a rehashing of the claims made by the students and their parents against the drill sergeant-esque Mike Landry and his equally abrasive wife, Tracey. We've seen that before, a narrative that played out as a rebuttal to those carefully curated viral videos of Black teens in joy as their classmates get their college acceptance emails, the videos that made for feel-good moments and exuberant segments on Ellen and Steve.

Instead, Chen strikes a much more demanding and poignant balance, by not simply running a primer on the allegations, but then throwing the story into a sharp left turn at the midpoint. Initially, he tells that feel good story; then the revelations, recounted by the kids that spoke (often under conditions of anonymity) with the Times. Yet, rather than hang around, waiting for the Landry's rebuttal, he jettisons the school. Chen's bold and successful choice is to keep with the students who stood up for themselves, and how they had become pawns in the complicated puzzle of modern education where charters, private, parochial, and even unaccredited campuses like Landry aren't really breaking the gamed system, but exploiting it and the kids to their own ends. Where do those students, whose decision to risk everything shows the caliber of their character and should make them a must-have recruit for any college, end up? And how do they find their way when they realize that the path they were sent down, by a guide they trusted, was the deadest of ends?

Chen's approach is what makes Accepted feel more incisive than any of the cavalcade of boosterish education docs of the last few years. It asks critical questions - about HBCUs and Ivy League colleges, about the purpose of higher education, about how the current system fails kids, especially kids of color - and sees how many of the solutions being proffered are just soundbite-friendly and highly profitable pablum. But by keeping his focus on the kids, Accepted changes the story from a pass/fail grade issue to what it should be - a story of lives. It is a movie from which there is much to learn.

Accepted streams as part of the Tribeca Film Festival through June 20.

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Tribeca Film Festival, Tribeca 2021, Accepted, TM Landry College Preparatory

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