“Is anyone not ready?”
Desperate to get into their preferred Ivy League schools, Lona (Sami Gayle) and Bennett (Jacob Latimore) fight for the Presidency of their elite high school debate club while trying to qualify for State Championships to pad their college applications. They’ve been rivals since they were kids, forsaking the typical teenage/high school experiences in order to study and focus on their future while one-upping each other on the way. Their mothers, Amy (Christina Hendricks), a barista, and Julia (Uzo Aduba), now a State Senator, were once classmates, and you can see where Lona and Bennett’s rivalry may just be a family trait.
After Lona and Bennett fail to qualify for the state championship individually, they get some advice from their guidance counselor Kathy (Helen Hunt), who encourages them to work together to try and qualify as a team. Kathy serves as something of a mentor to both Lona and Bennett. Her office is full of jars of candy and it’s obvious from her conversations with both teenagers that they view her as something of a friend, given how isolated they’ve become from their own classmates due to their ambition. Nothing is more important to Lona and Bennett then getting accepted into their college of choice, but when tragedy strikes, they begin to re-evaluate just how important higher education really is if it starts to strip away their individuality.
I decided to watch Candy Jar on a whim, after having passed it over several times for other films. I wanted something light, but honestly, I didn’t have very high expectations. I’m happy to say Candy Jar surprised me. Not only is it a touching teen romance, but I found peering into the ultra-competitive high school debate tournaments weirdly interesting. I’m not sure how accurate the portrayal is, but the students more or less cram an entire debate into eight minutes by speaking something like 400 words per minute. The judges and the opposing team already have the debate notes beforehand, so it seems less about substance and more about presenting all of it in the time allotted by speaking as quickly and eloquently as they can.
Lona and Bennett are also dealing with pressures from their mothers, as well as the pressure they place upon themselves. Lona’s father died when she was six, and she and her mother live in a low-income neighborhood, whereas Bennett was adopted by Julia, who, as a State Senator, lives rather comfortably. She attended Yale and fully expects Bennett to do to the same, even going so far as to donating thousands of dollars, and threatening to call in a couple of favors if he’s not accepted. Amy just wants Lona to be happy, even if she’s a bit more laid back about it than Julia. The differences in Lona and Bennett’s circumstances are evident, though funnily enough, the topic of their debate throughout the movie is whether or not the costs of higher education outweigh the benefits. Lona and Bennett argue both points to various judges, but as a viewer, you can’t really comprehend the arguments they’re making until another team, two girls from a public school, present their own side of the debate with personal stories of their own circumstance, when kids like them don’t have the resources that Bennett and Lona have to attend a good college. Candy Jar was released in 2018, but it feels rather relevant today with the USC/college admission scandals making headlines.
As with plenty of other teen romances, Lona and Bennett have to navigate parental expectations while discovering just who they are, and what they really want. Yes, it’s rather predictable and not at all groundbreaking, but it’s also a sweet coming of age movie that will no doubt strike a chord for anyone who can remember that last mad dash during their senior year to impress the college of their choice. There were no real weak links in the cast except for maybe the debate coach, Mr. Johnson (Paul Tigue) who talks in movie quotes, a schtick that was fun at first but got old pretty quick. Gayle and Latimore had enough chemistry to carry the movie, and it was really nice to see Helen Hunt shine again as the only real adult in Lona and Bennett’s lives who assures them that failure is okay and “sometimes you just lose”.