Director: Ben Shelton
Screenplay: Chad Klitzman
Starring: Sami Gayle, Jacob Latimore, Christina Hendricks, Uzo Aduba, Helen Hunt
Runtime: 92 Minutes
Although Netflix is ploughing through the release dates of their purchases and productions, releasing more frequently than they’ve ever done previously, a majority of its comedies don’t really deliver on the joke front. There’s a setup there and an air to the filmmaking that the makers were aware of the genre it would fall into, but there aren’t very many jokes themselves or even dialogue that might conjure a grin.
The same sadly seems to be of Candy Jar, which isn’t a bad film but doesn’t really try to be much of anything besides its allocated position in the Netflix genre libraries. Its plot follows the duelling high school debate champs, Lona (Sami Gayle) and Bennet (Jacob Latimore), who are at odds on just about everything and forge ahead with ambitious plans to get into the colleges of their dreams, spurred on by their competing mothers, Amy (Christina Hendricks) and Julia (Uzo Aduba), who used to be old school rivals themselves.
The immediately noticeable feeling with the film once the initial setup is done is just how weirdly empty it is, so much so that even the title is nothing but a detail without much purpose. The score just sounds like stock music, and it’s directed in a way that’s mostly flat and unimaginatively staged, but infrequently thinks of itself as a Wes Anderson film for the debate sequences where text runs behind the characters as they rattle off facts at a rapid pace.
This aspect is also startlingly underused, or at least not engaged with in the way it could be. A lot of dialogue is spent explaining the intricacies of debate teams such as the guidelines and the difference of approach between facts and weaving slower paced but personal anecdotes.
The thing is a lot of it has a contextual value regarding the elite statuses of the North American education system, and the favouring of those with upper-class background as opposed to the handouts to those not as well-off, but it doesn’t quite engage as well as it should with the characters and their own backgrounds mainly because of the way it moves so fast over these detailed factors until the final scenes.
What the film has going for it is in its portrayal of these characters, which feels intentionally thoughtful if a little undefined. Lona and Amy come from a poorer background to Bennet and Julia, and the long-simmering resentments that stand between former cheerleader Amy and bookworm Julia inform some of the drama and friction, and might engender discussion in only it more firmly knew what it was trying to say about it beyond different approaches to parenting.
For what it's worth the performances from the young Gayle and Latimore are quite good, even if their characters aren’t quite that interesting or emotional beyond one or two surprising, gut-churning developments at the midway point. Hendricks and Aduba don’t exactly put out but they’re good in their roles, and Helen Hunt is on hand for a mostly thankless role that actually feels kind of missed once scenes out of the film – but with reason.
Oddly enough, this film about debate clubs can’t really find a strong enough argument to support its own ideas, let alone justifying its own being. Candy Jar kind of works and has good intentions, but it’s a case where there’s just not enough to recommend it overall.