Most Likely to Succeed

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Most Likely to Succeed Movie Poster Image
Docu follows four promising students; some cursing.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 97 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Life is generally easier for those raised in stability and wealth. Growing up in impoverished, violent, drug-infused neighborhoods can make it difficult for even the most talented, hardworking, and motivated to achieve.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Four young people finish high school at the top of their classes, head to college, and strive to make happy and productive lives for themselves.


Quay recounts the death of her mother, sister, and friends, all within a short period of time. Charles remembers walking home through his bad neighborhood and wondering if he would be shot. A young man drives drunk and gets into a serious car accident.


"F--k," "s--t," "bitch," and "damn."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

An infant is born to a crack addict. A student's father is a gambling addict and alcoholic, and his mother is a crack addict. Students talk about heavy drinking in college. A young man drives drunk and gets into a serious car accident.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the 2019 documentary Most Likely to Succeed is the brainchild of Pamela Littky, who picked four high-achieving high school seniors dubbed "most likely to succeed" in 2007and followed them for ten years. The paths traveled by the students here support the notion that life tends to be more difficult for even the most high-achieving if they are poor, black, and live in the inner city. Students discuss college drinking. One was born addicted, with a crack-addict mother and an alcoholic father.  A young man drives drunk and gets into a serious car accident. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "damn," and "bitch." This film is not to be confused with two previous documentaries of the same name.  

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What's the story?

In MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED, director Pamela Littky follows four highly-intelligent students through college and beyond to see how they do in the real world after being designated "most likely to succeed" in high school. Sarah is the Florida daughter of two pastors. She's the definition of broad-minded, accepting her family's Christianity but also finding value in tenets of Judaism and Islam. After college and graduate school, she moves to Dubai where she works in global financial security, preventing money laundering and terrorist-funding. Quay is a low-income Detroiter raised with her three sisters by a single mom with severe heart problems. Fifth in her class, Quay's college loan falls through and instead of heading for Virginia, she remains in state for college, dropping out when her mother dies at the age of 46. Through grit and determination, she graduates ten years after high school and becomes a teacher. Peter's parents are both professors. He grows up solidly middle-class in Los Angeles, self diagnosing his position on the autism spectrum, and trying to fix his social issues by mimicking behavior he sees in "normal" kids around him. He graduates from Brown magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with no student debt, then moves to San Francisco to work at a tech start-up. He later realizes how lucky and privileged he was. Second in his class, Charles, another Detroiter, was born addicted, as his mother was a crack addict. His adoptive parents were nice enough but moved to another state during his senior year, leaving him to fend for himself. By film's end, he's moving up the corporate ladder at an insurance company, doing his best to inspire other young black students.   

Is it any good?

The film dispels some stubbornly-held perceptions that we live in an equal-opportunity society where everyone who's smart and hardworking will do equally well. Director Littky is known for her photographs of celebrities, individuals whose "success" has made them objects of strangers' admiration. In many ways, this is a movie about the absurdity of labels like "celebrity" and "success," the title being the most egregious label of all, an almost baseless prediction regarding an undefined outcome. Littky offers success definitions from renowned sources, including Winston Churchill, Irving Berlin, and Gen. George Patton, but it's the descriptions of success offered by the subjects themselves that tell us much more about what makes a decent, good, happy life today than any labels or stereotypes can.

Peter says, "Success is a life surrounded by people I love who love me." Three of the four subjects talk about giving back and making the world a better place. In making this film, Littky reminds us that we still have much work to do to help every child live a better and happier life. Given the pressure cooker high school has become as kids declare failure when they don't get into elite colleges, Most Likely to Succeed dares to ask the reasonable question: Is the kid who was fifth in his class, took thirteen AP classes, and got a perfect score on his SAT any happier than anyone else?

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what their definition of success is. Do you define it by financial achievement? Is success about happiness? Is it about giving to others? Who do you think is the most successful subject of Most Likely to Succeed?

  • What do you think are some ingredients for success? Intelligence? Perseverance? Good luck?

  • Name some factors in American life that can prevent smart and hardworking kids from getting ahead. Do you think poverty is such a factor? Do you think it's possible or desirable to level the playing field so that all talented kids can get ahead?

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