The answer to why The College Admissions Scandal was made is obvious: a real-world drama that engrossed the nation for months last year with enough recurring plot developments in the form of indictments to sustain its longevity is prime material for a movie. Why it was made now, with so much of the information still missing, however, is mind-boggling. This story will definitely come out in some form on Amazon Prime, or Hulu, Netflix, or even a dramatic biopic by a major studio. But why did Lifetime need to have the first iteration with so few of the culprits having undergone trial, and some even changing their pleas just last month?
Georgetown has a personal stake in this as the school and several of its former students, both graduated and expelled, were involved in the scandal. However, Georgetown is not featured in this movie. They mention the school in regard to criminal ring-leader Rick Singer (Micheal Shanks) having ‘helped’ placed a student at Georgetown the previous year, which would have been a male student in the class of 2022, or when listing good schools that parents hope their children can get into.
Before I go any further, we need to discuss the title. Obviously, “the college admissions scandal” is how everyone refers to the film’s subject in conversation (when discussing the real events, not this movie, no one is talking about this), but that doesn’t make it a good movie title. Also, the FBI made the codename for this operation “Varsity Blues,” in reference to the 1999 coming-of-age movie. How did they miss using that in a title? The only thing I can think of is that other production companies copyrighted titles before Lifetime could.
The movie, “inspired by true events,” revolves around the college-obsessed parents who eventually cross moral lines and defraud universities to gain admission for their children. From the very beginning, it’s heavily implied that the families come from privileged backgrounds. Caroline and Jackson DeVere (Penelope Ann Miller and Robert Moloney) are both Stanford alumni, and Bethany Slade (Mia Kirshner) wants nothing but the best for her daughter, regardless of the absurdity of the demand.
They all know each other, not the best of friends, but they travel in the same circles. The mothers are acquaintances who seemingly meet only to discuss what their kids are doing to get into college, comparing SAT scores and trading recommendations for college consultants. All the parents are visibly obsessed in an overly dramatic fashion. The only part that feels authentic is how difficult and stressful it is to get into college. It is not enough to have good SAT scores and do community service. You have to create and run your own club—and make sure you get press for it.
The movie places itself on the kids’ side, showing their parents’ decision to hire the illegal services of Singer without their knowledge. Danny DeVere (Sam Duke), who wants to go into music, starts talking to a producer despite his parents never even listening to one of his sets. Bethany’s daughter Taylor (Vanessa Przada), wants to have actual passion for what she does. She won’t pretend she has altruism for college, and doesn’t want to be the robot her mom desires—although she doesn’t try hard enough to break from her mother’s mold, clearly.
Singer does not seem that charismatic, but then again have you seen The Inventor (2019)? Elizabeth Holmes is said to have created her entire empire of fraud on her charisma, yet the HBO documentary on her company shows very little magnetism coming from her. Singer does have a bit more charm when recruiting students’ families. The film shows him picking his clients based on their estimated net worth from Google—making a caricature out of it. He dismisses someone who seems great but has little money, and sets up a call with Bethany Slade instead.
This mom is insane. She threatens her daughter’s guidance counselor, implying that paying a $50,000 high school tuition means that she should be able to send her child to Yale regardless of how she actually does in school. This is why Bethany turns to Singer. He has slimy tactics for parents that push the boundaries without crossing into illegality. However, she eventually calls upon his additional illegal services.
Her character is exaggerated to the extreme. She says, “They have their advantages and we have ours,” in reference to students who can potentially benefit from affirmative action, as well as, “It is the natural way of the world, and some species survive and some don’t.” This is an ugly sentiment, meant to provide a dramatic quote for the trailer, but it is trying too hard. Way too hard. I understand that actual parents somehow reached a point where they were okay with doing these kinds of illegal activities, but this can’t be the rationale.
The kids are almost astonishingly oblivious, bordering on dumb. How is it believable that they didn’t know anything? Taylor goes to a photoshoot to pretend she plays soccer without realizing the lines she is crossing, blinded by wanting to go to Yale to be with her boyfriend. But then again, the students not being the brightest is a premise that the entire plot depends on. The annoyingly over-dramatic acting is just a bonus.
There is one thing that I will admit the movie did well: It does a good job of explaining how the crime ring was organized and what the crimes committed were—it becomes overkill, actually. The film shows both the action behind the parents and Rick Singer’s criminal activity and the unraveling of the scheme from the FBI’s investigative perspective. Given how convoluted and confusing the scandal actually is, Lifetime successfully makes sure that the audience knows what happened. The parents are doing this because it is “cheaper than endowing a library,” and the movie walks us through what the exploited systems were.
The ending is just as bad as the rest of the film. It is necessarily dissatisfying because the movie came out before all the t’s were crossed and i’s were dotted. We do not really know what happens to most of the parents, we just get to see the DeVeres feel remorse, and Bethany stay steadfast in her desire to do anything to secure her daughter’s future.
In a final scene meant to be emotional and reflective (that, of course, falls flat), the DeVeres listen to a recording of a song their son Danny wrote, for the first time realizing that he is talented and maybe could have successfully followed his musical dreams. But they ruined that for him by acting illegally and against his wishes. They will have to deal with the consequences, but this is supposed to be a melodramatic way of providing an epiphany that they haven’t been good parents that is poorly written and executed, like the rest of the movie.
I am as engrossed in this real-life drama as anyone else. It blows my mind that this happened and yet it doesn’t surprise me at all. I am looking forward to seeing a documentary or two, maybe a biopic and definitely watching someone’s book about the scandal reach the top of the New Times Bestseller list—this is my equivalent of trashy but fun entertainment. Despite my gossip-y side wanting to know more, I actually am appalled at the facts. Given that I take the actual story fairly seriously, I just hope that a better dramatization is made because this just isn’t it.