On April 27, Netflix released its latest original film: director Ben Shelton’s high school rom-com Candy Jar. Jacob Latimore and Sami Gayle star as Bennett and Lona, two high school seniors and rival debaters who are desperate to get into their Ivy League schools of choice. Bennett, the son of a state senator, wants to go to his mother’s alma mater, Yale, while Lona, who comes from a humbler background, strives to go to Harvard. Both are reliant on a debate state championship to embellish their applications, but when a public spat between their mothers prevents them from qualifying, the pair is forced to either forgo becoming debate champions or learn to work together and re-enter as a team.
For students studying at an elite college, it is hard not to relate to Candy Jar. The film encapsulates that struggle for perfection that many of us face and the sometimes isolating repercussions that come along with it. We watch as Lona and Bennett tiptoe the lines between bitter and hopeful, anxious and collected. Their fast-talking debate scenes epitomize this energy, as the pair rattle off arguments and counterarguments on various topics, such as whether the price of a college education is worth it.
The plot unfurls predictably, with the former adversaries eventually realizing that they have more in common than not (see: Blades of Glory). Lona and Bennett’s relationship evolves from platonic to romantic as the two begin working in partnership to prepare for their debates. Latimore and Gayle have enough chemistry to propel the plot forward believably, while Lona’s perfectionism mixed with Bennett’s smugness prevents any moment from becoming too sanguine.
The film’s ending is predictable as well, with a team of cross-town rivals from a school without the privileges of Lona and Bennett’s private academy defeating them in the finals using a unique, slowed-down debate strategy based on their personal experiences rather than statistics. Lona scoffs at this strategy initially but eventually finds herself agreeing with her rivals at the film’s climax. This moment sends a mixed message about school inequality that the film fails to embrace wholeheartedly; Bennett and Lona acknowledge the shallowness of their attempts to get into top colleges, yet they continue to perpetuate this system.
The teenagers may be Candy Jar’s main plot focus, but it’s the adults who steal the show. The film’s best comedic moments come from the interactions between Uzo Aduba of Orange is the New Black fame as Bennett’s mother and Christina Hendricks, best known for her role on Mad Men, as Lona’s mother. The two seem to have more in common than not, as both are single moms strapped with the pressure of raising their high-achieving kids, but an old high school conflict manages to get in the way. If anything, their acting outperforms the writing. Their passive-aggressive banter is fun to watch, but the backstory of how their mutual loathing came to be, stemming from a class president election, could have used more development. Nevertheless, watching these two square off is nothing short of delightful. Tom Bergeron (host of Dancing with the Stars) also merits an honorable mention for his portrayal of the perfectly avuncular school principal in one of his few acting credits.
One of the film’s pitfalls is its giving into characteristic high school movie tropes, complete with an earnest, trying-to-be-relatable teacher played by Paul Tigue as well as the wise, tells-it-like-it-is guidance counselor played by Helen Hunt who, admittedly, carries the role well. For fans of the genre, these elements may be comforting in their familiarity.
Candy Jar is a fun and watchable movie that’s as sugary as its title. While not particularly adventurous, Shelton’s film does not take itself too seriously and features admirable acting performances from newcomers and familiar faces alike, making it a great option for some light viewing this finals period.