Parents' Guide to

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal

By Jennifer Green, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 15+

Some language in riveting docu with insight on U.S. culture.

Movie R 2021 100 minutes
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This documentary offers a riveting account of a scandal that captured headlines in 2019 and a devastating reflection on U.S. culture, higher education, and an unjust system of wealth and privilege. Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal uses a combination of first-hand interviews and dramatized reenactments to bring the breadth and corruption of the scandal to life and reflect on its lessons and impact. Based on information gathered about Singer but also hours of real wiretap transcripts, these reenactments work best in representing the rarified privilege of the families involved. The actors playing the paying parents are filmed in luxurious estates and atop sprawling Napa vineyards. One talks about renting out Versailles for his birthday. Where the reenactments are perhaps flawed is when real people involved in the scandal, like former Stanford sailing team coach John Vandemoer, are oddly filmed interacting with the actor, Modine, playing Singer. There could also be pushback on the portrayals: While the words of the accused were recorded, in most cases their faces and body language were not.

These aesthetic concerns are ultimately secondary to the profoundly disturbing ramifications of the scandal itself. In bringing the details to life on-screen, this documentary could prompt some important discussions about the imbalanced distribution and misuses of wealth, the potentially corrupting influence of privilege, the false promises of elite institutions, and the realities college-bound teens today face. There's a small segment around the 40-minute mark where actual students talk about the pressures of applying to the best colleges and the disappointment of not getting in on their own merits. One interviewee says teens are "plagued" by anxiety while parents are obsessed with the "bragging rights" of having a child at an elite school. Some of the teens involved in the scandal weren't aware of their parents' scheming. But others, like celebrity Olivia Jade, seem to have been aware. Either way, the moral for them all is damaging, as it is for those witnessing the racket from the sidelines. "This is America," one unsurprised and justifiably angry teen bystander declares. "You have money? You best believe you have access to certain spaces that other kids don't have." It's a cold splash of reality that needs to be reckoned with, and this documentary offers a good place to start.

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