My So-Called High School Rank (now on HBO Max) is a classic case of documentary filmmakers going where the story takes them. In this case, directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (Surviving Jeffrey Epstein and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) set out to chart the progress of the musical Ranked as its popularity bloomed beyond its origins at a Sacramento high school, but the film production found itself following students as they navigated the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
MY SO-CALLED HIGH SCHOOL RANK: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: David Taylor Gomes and Kyle Holmes wrote Ranked specifically for Granite Bay High School students to perform. They saw teenagers obsessed with their academic performance rankings – which they track in real time with an app – and facing immense pressure from their families and communities to get into the best college possible. So they wrote a musical set in a not-too-far-off dystopian future in which the whole of high schoolers’ societal worth hinges on their rank, with their possibility of achieving “the American dream” on the line. Some context: Granite Bay is the same school where a top grad gave a valedictorian speech that went viral on YouTube because it was highly critical of the “game” students play to achieve academic success. And Ranked debuted just as the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal proved that money and influence can unfairly benefit students from privileged backgrounds.
The musical, if you’ll pardon the phrase, struck a chord after it debuted in the spring of 2019. Suddenly Gomes and Holmes were contacted by schools across the nation to license the script, and we meet some of the students and educators staging those productions. One is taking place in Cupertino, California, an upper-middle-class community heavy with a high-achieving immigrant class working at places like Apple and Pinterest; the school is ranked at 292 of 17,857 nationally. Another is in Ripley, West Virginia, a town of 38,000 where opioid abuse is a major problem, and the primary employer is an aluminum plant; this school sits at 4,684 academically, but no. 1 in archery.
The documentary profiles several kids participating in the musical. One is Cupertino student Senih, who gets by with Cs and Bs and a couple of As, but routinely feels pressure from his father to do better; his father is a Turkish immigrant who was an overachieving student and now has a job that allows him to park a Lamborghini in the garage. Another is Leo in Ripley, who wants to study animation, but will have to move far from their small town to achieve that dream. An ominous subtitle tells us it’s early March of 2020. Other schools, including Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx, ramp up for performances of Ranked, while Gomes and Holmes travel to New York City to pitch the musical to Broadway producers. And yes, all of this is about to fall apart.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Elements of Covid doc The First Wave and college-application doc Try Harder! intermingle with bits of Tick, Tick… Boom! and Every Little Step.
Performance Worth Watching: You can’t help but root for the students profiled here (Fordham’s Isiah and Jolimar show significant talent!) as they pursue their dreams.
Memorable Dialogue: The filmmakers pose a question to a student at Ripley High School in West Virginia:
“Have you ever thought about going to an Ivy League college?”
“What is that? I honestly don’t know what that is.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Watching My So-Called High School Rank, one gets the impression Stern and Sundberg had to roll with a lot of punches in order to complete their film. It begins as a deep dive into the academic ranking system, the toll it has on students’ mental health and the disparity in educational opportunities among socio-economic classes – all the stuff that Ranked addresses. And as the filmmakers tried to follow kids from a variety of schools performing the musical, the pandemic piled on hardship for students (and, no doubt, filmmakers). And so the documentary offers a montage of big cities, eerily empty during lockdowns, and deviates into the topics of remote learning, Covid-related anxiety and, eventually, societal unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and staging musicals over Zoom.
The film is cut into three acts: The first addressing the literal and ideological origin of the musical, the second emphasizing the shaky state of the Covid-wracked world, and the third catching up with a handful of students as they graduate and look forward to college. The result is an unfocused smattering of topical fodder that occasionally hits some intense emotional notes – students are captured on camera as they’re told they’re receiving significant scholarships – but never coalesces into thematic coherence. One feels yanked here and there and everywhere, from a very brief discussion of teen suicide to the economic challenges of attending college to the effort it takes to get a show on Broadway to strained parent-child relationships; it feels like many glancing blows and no direct hits.
It’s as if the directors pieced together whatever footage they had after a few years’ of work, and let the chips fall messily where they may. If you tend towards being an apologist for a documentary with noble intentions, you’ll assert that such narrative messiness is absolutely a reflection of the highly interruptive nature of our times. That seems like a reasonable assessment of My So-Called High School Rank.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Although it struggles to find focus, My So-Called High School Rank addresses its smattering of topics with enough relevance and poignancy to warrant a watch.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.