As a former admissions officer for Columbia University, Unlikely’s co-writer/co-producer/co-
Unlikely’s setting up of apparent college facts at the beginning of the film is done with a checklist of the most generic documentary tactics. Not only does Unlikely start off with unnecessary stock footage, nonstop news clips saying the same thing, and TV clips to make the film seem “fun” (one such example: Chris Griffin on Family Guy saying how Brown University reminds him of poop), but the Fenderson’s talk down to their audience to an embarrassing degree. By the time the film explains what a “legacy” is, or that “It doesn’t just take good grades to get into college” within the first ten minutes, Unlikely is already starting at a loss.
But then, Unlikely introduces potential students from Akron, Atlanta, Boston, and Los Angeles for a more personal look at how hard college can be. None of these individual students personal stories is remotely intriguing, and the film never gives any of them enough time to make them worthwhile case studies. Maybe the most interesting is Tania, a woman whose family brought her to the United States from Iran, but instead of following her dreams of college, she became a manager at Starbucks. At least these stories show how much help many people need in even the most basic college preparation, like the woman who didn’t realize she was going to an unaccredited college until she had stacked up thousands in debt. Most of their stories revolve around not being able to pay for college – an understandable problem – but not remotely interesting when handled in this way.
The other interviewees that the Fenderson’s talk to all have the same viewpoint of how college should be: a way to prepare students for the workforce. Social aspects of college, as well as growth beyond education, are completely ignored. The Fenderson’s present the idea that presently, college is a “one size fits all” system and that the idea of college that we know now might not work for all students. Again, this is a good idea, but the solution presented is lackluster. Some programs shown are positive, but most seem like little else than just a way to kick students into the workforce.
But in presenting these counter ideas to what college can be, the Fendersons present their side of the argument, without pointing out any flaws in these new ideas. Like the handling of the students, there’s not enough time given to these ideas to give them any weight. Unlikely is all over the place in both its presentation of the problems, and the solution to these problems.
Unlikely tries to end on a high note, a joyous celebration of students graduating, intercut with shots of fireworks and obnoxiously soundtracked to Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” almost a parody of how a film like this should end. It’s as if Jaye and Adam Fenderson have done the bare minimum in trying to bring these issues to the public, in what has all the joy and depth of an college alternative commercial. The Fenderson’s may be frustrated by the rigging of the system, but by the end of Unlikely, the audience will feel like they’ve been rigged by the Fenderson’s lazy filmmaking.