Netflix's latest coming-of-age indie comedy mixes a charming cast with an impassioned debate over adolescent ambitions and how to learn from failure.
We all know where the Netflix movie Candy Jar is going right from the start, as the teenage Lona (Sami Gayle) gazes at her fellow high school debate champion Bennett (Jacob Latimore) and silently muses about how much she hates him. So what takes them so long? You’d need to watch the movie to find out, and that’s a great thing.
As befits the best rivals, Lona and Bennett have a great deal in common that they refuse to see, focusing instead on their differences. Both are isolated from their peers and the experience of high school in general due to their drive and ambition to get into the Ivy League college of their choice. They also share very close relationships with their mothers – both of whom are single, although for very different reasons. Bennett is the son of privilege, the adopted son of Julia (Uzo Aduba), a driven and ambitious state senator; Lona is from a lower income background, and her mother (Christina Hendricks) is still a little hung up on her high school glory days, but not enough for it to define her or damage her relationship with her daughter.
Lona and Bennett are so focused on fulfilling the futures they envision for themselves that becoming the president of a debate team that consists only of the two of them becomes a point of major contention. But it’ll make them more appealing to their would-be alma maters Harvard and Yale, so they’re determined to add it to their transcripts. When they are forced to become co-presidents, the two driven loners are forced to discover just how much they really have in common.
Director Ben Shelton and screenwriter Chad Klitzman hardly break new ground, but the genius of Candy Jar is not in how much of Lona and Bennett’s journey feels new, or even how enjoyable it is – though it is more fun than such familiarity should be. It’s the sense of perspective and even realism inherent in their story that makes a case for the ways we can learn and grow from failure and loss, and the movie’s refusal to let their characters have it all.
And what characters! Each of them is not only deeply sympathetic, they are perfectly cast, every performer equally adept at handling Klitzman’s sharp, touching, and incredibly funny script. Hendricks and Helen Hunt especially come off as the movie’s prime scene-stealers, with Hunt shining as a guidance counselor who, lo and behold, provides some actual guidance. This proves especially useful to teenagers like Lona and Bennett, who possess the ambitious mindsets of people far older, but are still young enough to pine for the usual teenage experiences they’re missing out on.
Indeed, they are flawed enough to only widen their perspective when their future is taken from them – forcing them to not only attempt to find solace in human connection but appreciate the perspectives of rival debaters Jasmine (Antonia Gentry) and Dana (Ariana Guerra), the film’s true underdogs. While the rest of the competitors adhere to the sport’s rigid rules of conveying carefully researched arguments, Jasmine and Dana use their own experiences as low-income students (without access to the resources the others take for granted) to make impassioned speeches about the debate topic – which just happens to be college access.
Any other movie would’ve provided more reassurance that everything would be all right. Candy Jar would rather provide a different kind of consolation. No, sometimes not everything will be all right. But that’s okay too.
Candy Jar is currently available on Netflix.