HBO doc featuring Bronx students highlights both the pressure and resilience of coming of age

HBO's film "My So-Called College Rank," which features students from the Bronx, chronicles the pressure today's high school kids face.
HBO’s film “My So-Called College Rank,” featuring students from the Bronx, chronicles the pressure today’s high school kids face.
Photo courtesy Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis Communications

 

College is one of the most romanticized stages of life. Many kids dream of the freedom and self discovery the era will bring, and adults often look back on the period with fond nostalgia. But how many of us really talk about the pressure that burdens today’s high schoolers as they fight to get into their dream colleges?

A mainstream documentary that premiered last week, which features students and staff from a Bronx high school, makes it clear that kids in this borough know the pressure all too well. 

The HBO film “My So-Called High School Rank” follows three high school drama departments performing a musical, called “Ranked,” that depicts a dystopian society where students’ class rank determines every part of their future. The musical’s characters are remarkably similar to the students who play them — all high school kids in Cupertino, California, Ripley, West Virginia, and Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx. 

The directors of the movie — New York Citybased filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern — said the original premise of the documentary was to highlight over-extended high school kids from across the country. But as the COVID-19 pandemic began, another crucial component of the story emerged.

“We ultimately stumbled into this incredible story of how art was the thing that really kept these kids connected, and sane and happy to engage,” Sundberg told the Bronx Times in an interview. 

The pair began documenting the three high schools’ performances of “Ranked” — written by Kyle Holmes and David Taylor Gomes which debuted at Granite Bay High School in Sacramento, California four years ago — just before the pandemic. 

An HBO film, which features students from the Bronx, chronicles the pressure today's high school kids face.
An HBO film, which features students from a public high school in the Bronx, premiered on Nov. 29.

Stern said the filmmakers became fascinated with the societal worship surrounding high school students’ class rank in 2019 after prosecutors charged 50 people, including including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, for cheating their kids’ way into elite colleges — a scam known as Operation Varsity Blues.

In the scandal, wealthy parents were caught paying enormous sums to former college counselor Rick Singer — who would bribe university coaches for athletic scholarships for his clients’ kids, often for sports the kids never actually played, and hire fraudulent SAT and ACT proctors who would take the students’ tests for them. According to an NPR report from 2019, these parents would pay anywhere between $200,000 and $6.5 million to swindle prestigious schools.

And while only some went that far, the directors of the HBO documentary said they learned about the tangible ways in which normal high school students feel like perfect isn’t good enough any more — a sentiment also echoed in their “Ranked” performances at their respective schools.  

“This was not just a run-of-the-mill high school musical, there was something much larger,” Sundberg told the Bronx Times.

Inequity in education 

Gabriella Fertides was a sophomore at Fordham High School for the Arts, a public school in the Belmont section of the Bronx, when the documentary crew came to film their school’s virtual rendition of “Ranked” the musical during the pandemic. After the documentary aired last week, she said she was captivated by the array of experiences from high school students across the country. 

“We’re all from the Bronx and compared to these people in (West) Virginia and California, we don’t have as many opportunities as they do,” Fertides told the Bronx Times. 

Fertides has roots in predominantly Hispanic communities in Harlem and New Jersey, as well as overseas in the Dominican Republic. She described feeling like her future was somewhat predetermined because of where she comes from — saying that the HBO documentary helped her make it “out of this box” she felt like she was put in. 

“Dominican people have a lot of pride in their heritage and their culture,” she said. “It’s almost life-changing, seeing my face during the premiere.” 

Sundberg said that there is more work now calling attention to the unfairness of higher education, which is one of the film’s primary motifs. 

“One of the things that we’re starting to see is that there’s an awareness of inequity in education … and how that has manifested itself into who gets to go to college,” the director said. “These kids are incredibly motivated, working often with limited resources.” 

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the majority of Bronx residents are Hispanic/Latino or Black. Nearly 25% of people in the Bronx live in poverty, and just 20.3% of Bronxites over the age of 25 had obtained at least a bachelor’s degree from 2016 to 2020.

That’s compared to a 16.3% poverty level in Manhattan — a borough where 62.2% of people over 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree. 

“Ranked” as a proxy for senior year

Alyssa Gil-Pujols, another senior at Fordham High School for the Arts who was featured in the HBO film, said she’s now grappling with a lot of the same things “Ranked” the musical highlights. 

Gil-Pujols — one of her school’s editors on “Ranked” at the time of HBO’s filming — said she doesn’t want to put a financial strain on her mom to go to college. 

“I got into my dream college, but now I’m thinking about having to pay for that,” she told the Bronx Times.

Stern said the majority of students she worked with while directing the documentary worried about the same things. 

“What was surprising for us in some ways is that the anxiety and pressure to get into a college that is meaningful to you is felt universally,” she said. “That we discovered through this musical.”

A still from HBO's film "My So-Called College Rank," which features students from the Bronx, shows kids doing homework in between takes.
The HBO film “My So-Called High School Rank” follows three high school drama departments performing a musical that depicts a dystopian society where students’ class rank determines every part of their future. Photo courtesy Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis Communications

Joey Nelson played one of the lead roles in “Ranked” two years ago. Now a senior, he said it seems daunting to be so close to stepping out into the real world. 

“It’s nerve wracking because it’s like, what do I want to do with my life?” he told the Bronx Times.  

Nelson, who has been studying theater at Fordham High School for the Arts for all four years now, said the arts — even performances that center on the same pressure he feels in real life — can actually soothe some of that stress. 

“In a way, it brought back a light to me to love the arts again, because being locked away for so long was kind of hard,” he said. “Even in the darkest times we can use the arts to brighten a situation.” 

Coming up for air

Stern said she was proud of the film’s ability to showcase more than just the stress students endure while applying to college, but also the resilience.  

“It’s a window into these students’ lives,” the director said. “Also it’s not just about the stress, there’s a lot of joy and inspiration that you take away from these young people.”  

The three Fordham High School for the Arts seniors also got to reflect on their experiences from a different vantage point following the premiere  — now two years older and on their way to graduating high school for real. 

Nelson said he thinks about the song “Come Up for Air” when he’s stressing about his next steps, and Fertides said she relates to the show way more now than she did as a sophomore. 

And from California and West Virginia to the Bronx, the students said they want the world to recognize their effort.  

“Now I’m hoping that this is reaching out to our parents or the adults that are saying we’re not trying,” Gil-Pujols said. “In reality, we are. We’re trying to be the best, we’re trying to do the best, we’re trying to get them to be proud of us.”

Reach Camille Botello at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes

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