At the outset of Accepted, Michael Landry seems like a hero. Determined to provide young (mostly Black) students in rural Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, with the education and guidance—and thus college opportunities—that he couldn’t successfully give to his own kids, he and wife Tracey founded, in 2005, the TM Landry Prep School. An unconventional house of learning, it was a place where, through long and rigorous days and nights of study often delivered with a healthy dose of tough love and encouraging preaching, Landry sought to mold young minds, instilling in them the values of hard work, ambition, and sacrifice that would serve them well in the future. It was an attempt to create a culture of excellence and accomplishment, and the results spoke for themselves: 100 percent of TM Landry students went to college, and 32 percent of them attended Ivy League schools.
Those fantastic numbers, along with viral videos of his students exploding in celebration upon receiving acceptance notices to top U.S. universities, made TM Landry Prep School a shining example of the transformative benefits that come from prioritizing education above all other concerns. Alas, the good times were not to last, and Accepted (premiering June 12 at the Tribeca Film Festival) isn’t simply a feel-good documentary; rather, it’s a complex examination of the pressures swirling around the college-admissions process, and the way in which those forces can warp good intentions to the detriment of educators, officials and, most of all, kids.
Set during the 2019 school year, director Dan Chen’s non-fiction tale invariably dovetails with that of Operation Varsity Blues, the scandal that ensnared rich and powerful parents (including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin) for paying people to take their kids’ standardized tests and doctor their applications with phony sports and extracurricular activities. The privilege that allowed such criminal behavior to take place isn’t afforded to the likes of Landry’s students, most of whom are minorities who hail from economically modest backgrounds (their average household income is $32,000/year). For juniors Alicia, Adia, Isaac, and Cathy—the nominal subjects of Accepted—TM Landry Prep was a unique ticket to the sorts of opportunities they not only thought were out of reach, but barely knew existed in the first place.
In a giant warehouse and its connected rooms, Landry devised an unconventional environment designed to get kids into college. There were teachers but no textbooks, homework, or specific class schedules. The school day often ran from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. And a good bit of instruction came from Landry himself, a gregarious Black man with a preacher’s soul and a no-nonsense attitude toward achievement, which he lectured was possible for every student of his who wanted it. Often seen wearing university-logo garb (something his students mimicked, in a show of shared aspirations), he also made clear that, should they not work hard enough, they could expect a life of early imprisonment and death (per Louisiana crime statistics), thus casting his endeavor as a not-so-figurative do-or-die affair. Landry provided the keys to the kingdom, and also a stark vision of the high stakes hanging in the balance for these boys and girls.
In the film’s early going, Landry is downright inspirational. Through the testimonials of Alicia, Adia, Isaac, and Cathy, Accepted illustrates that his belief in education altered both their goals and their sense of self-worth. When things appear too good to be true, however, they usually are, and Chen’s doc eventually drops the hammer: following a parade of celebratory media coverage, allegations arose (beginning with a 2018 exposé in The New York Times) about Landry physically and verbally abusing students, as well as falsifying their résumés with phony clubs, awards, and distinctions. Controversy ensued, investigations were initiated, and numerous students dropped out of TM Landry Prep, including Alicia, Isaac, and Cathy, the last of whom even had to fight for a refund for the thousands of dollars in tuition she’d prepaid.
As depicted in Accepted, Landry’s alleged scam was the flip side to Operation Varsity Blues, using (sometimes embellished) minority-hardship stories and fictitious transcript claims to, as one MSNBC commentator puts it, “appeal to liberal sentimentality” by making admissions officers feel sorry for them. Landry reportedly contends that deans instructed him to perform this deception so the universities could increase their minority student numbers. Whether that was true or not, Chen’s film suggests that money isn’t the only weapon kids and adults can use to exploit facets of the college-admissions process; race, geography and cultural stereotypes, assumptions and expectations can, in the right hands, also be manipulated to one’s advantage.
The jury remains out on whether Landry is guilty of the offenses of which he’s accused (including, most damningly, choking and striking a student); other students alleged they “were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement” for hours. But the lingering tension of Accepted comes from the push-pull between the effectiveness of Landry’s apparent ruse (which was wrong) and the life-changing impact his pro-hard work, pro-self-responsibility ethos had on his students. In interviews with Aida, Alicia, and Isaac, one can see that Landry really did fundamentally improve how kids thought about themselves and their potential to achieve amazing things. At the same time, no amount of college-admissions unfairness can justify Landry’s supposed abuse and race-exploiting fraud—which, invariably, calls into question the efficacy of his school’s methods at preparing kids for higher education.
In the end, Accepted proves a cautionary tale about miracle solutions to complicated predicaments, as well as a lament for the genuine casualties of this con: students who, having been taught to believe they could do anything, now must contend with “cheater” labels and doubts about their abilities and values. Those aren’t easily healed wounds, as evidenced by later conversations with Alicia and Adia that are marked by tears, regrets, and questions about the college paths they had been so sure of only a few months earlier. Consequently, while Chen’s film ultimately finds that his four nominal subjects have continued onward to better and brighter things—achieving the dreams that Landry helped instill in them—even its upbeat conclusion is tinged with melancholy over a process that seems tailor-made for corruption and heartache.