Ben Shelton’s Netflix Original “Candy Jar” is a sweet addition to the teen film genre, a fanciful examination of the modern education system and its effect on the social adjustment of its students.
“Candy Jar” thrusts the audience into the high school senior year struggle of debate co-presidents Lona (Sami Gayle) and Bennett (Jacob Latimore) in their perpetual competition with one another as they apply for Ivy League colleges. Lona’s mother Amy (Christina Hendricks) and Bennett’s mother Julia (Uzo Aduba), constantly push them to beat each other, living out their rivalry vicariously through their children. As Lona and Bennett constantly try to one-up each other, they realize their relationship may not only be described as competitive.
The screenplay creates a dialogue about the value of time spent in high school and the cost of higher education from a viewpoint rarely explored: the students of preparatory schools. Shelton drops us into the conflict between Lona and Bennett as they try to convince Principal Nelson (Tom Bergeron) to choose one of them as president of the debate club at their prestigious prep school. The tension between Lona and Bennett extends beyond their professional relationship as debaters and is fueled by their parents’ dislike for each other.
The inspiration for their struggle is clear after a lecture where Lona and Bennett passive aggressively battle each other. While this occurs, a teacher discusses the formulaic nature of Romeo and Juliet-esque romances. This critique of teen romance is not unique, but the parallels drawn between the two stories aid in our understanding the conflict between the parents of Lona and Bennett.
The students participating in debate speak in a robotic, technically oriented manner, whereas their motivations behind participating in such extremely rigid behaviors are given a prominent platform for the audience to deconstruct and analyze. Lona claims she can speak at 400 words per minute, and Bennett justifies this as being necessary to include as many points as possible in their debate in order to throw off their competition. Their extreme pursuit for superiority in debate reflects their upbringing in an environment that pushes them to succeed. Julia often accuses Bennett of focusing too little on his education, while Amy actually tells Lona she focuses too much on it. Lona and Bennett are being forced to pack away their youth by either their peers or their parents, to put away childish things far sooner than they should be.
The movie gets less realistic when Lona and Bennett are genuinely challenged by Washington High debaters Jasmine (Antonia Gentry) and Dana (Ariana Guerra), who speak slowly and use emotional anecdotes to argue about the apparent worthlessness of higher education to disadvantaged youth. The juxtaposition of the two debating styles suggests that human connection is ultimately worth more than sacrificing participation in a social community.
The film is funny enough in its references to Julia’s relationship to former president Barack Obama and the ludicrous number of candy jars which line the walls of guidance counselor Kathy (Helen Hunt). The comedic efforts are enhanced by Christina Hendricks’ performance as Amy, where the rivalry between herself and Julia meanders from friendly to vindictive.
A thoroughly engaging emblem of the issues facing high school students about to be released into the wild world, “Candy Jar” hits the sweet spot between angsty teen drama and a protest sign at a rally for the rising cost of education. The film will apply to high schoolers and college students alike, as we are all subject to the decreasing affordability of college.