Critical Corner — CANDY JAR Teaches Robots To Love

Zach Blumenfeld

[Note: This review contains heavy spoilers for the Netflix original film Candy Jar.]

I’ve often mused that Columbia Law School feels more like high school than college. We have lockers; there’s an annual basketball game in a gym with a pep band; we go to Law Prom each March; there are few enough people that there are no secrets; and, at least during 1L year, the pressure to succeed can wreak havoc on even the most resilient psyche.

So even though it’s been the better part of a decade since I was frantically cramming my resume and writing draft after draft of college application essays, Netflix’s new film Candy Jar connected with the current version of me. Set on the brutal high school debate circuit, where words fly faster and more furiously than in moot court, Candy Jar tells the story of two Type A teens—Lona (Sami Gayle) and Bennett (Jacob Latimore)—who start out intently focused on winning state championships, getting into their dream Ivy League schools, and hating each other. In other words, the parts of themselves that every Columbia Law student has grown to dislike and learned to suppress upon growing up is on full display. It’s delightfully cringeworthy, and any kid or parent who has experienced a similar environment will be charmed to hell by this film.

The basis of evaluation for Candy Jar was always going to be the believability of its young leads’ inevitable realization and rejection of their myopia, and here, rookie writer (and current CLS 3L!) Chad Klitzman crafts a tight narrative with enough surprises in the ebb and flow to feel natural. Crucial to that is the chemistry he builds between Lona and Bennett, which plays fast and loose at times but also conforms well with the characters’ slow awakening. They’re clearly kindred spirits from the outset, and their dynamic is at its best when they’re going tit-for-tat; one especially memorable scene features Bennett logicking Lona into the idea of debating as a team after the two crash out of the individual competition. By contrast, some of the more intimate moments feel a bit hung-up, which might be chalked up either to our protagonists’ semi-robotic teenhood but might also be a slightly clunky reliance on symbols like french fries and cookies. A particularly conflicted scene of this sort arises when Lona and Bennett turn a homecoming at the movies into a first NOT-A-DATE that romantic people consigned to dating apps would dream about in their lonely hours, then utterly fail to realize the significance. On one level, I sympathize with poorly socialized teens trying to find grounds for conversation and then not recognize that maybe something more is there…but the friendliness feels a bit too natural for that to be the case. Still, though, by the end of Candy Jar, the romance between Lona and Bennett feels well-earned, and their confusion after their first kiss should smack anyone who remembers high school directly in the gut.

Part of the reason that Lona and Bennett work out for the viewer in the end is because Klitzman has created wonderful adult characters that humanize the protagonists. The rivalry between Lona’s mother Amy (Christina Hendricks) and Bennett’s mother Julia (Uzo Aduba) is both well-developed and brilliantly acted. Each character comes off as petty in her own way, and their history is explored to just enough depth that their beef seems understandable but not reasonable. Julia’s character can be summarized in this GIF, my single favorite moment in the film:

And while Julia’s relationship with Bennett is easier to understand—high-achieving mom demands that her son follow the same path—the bond between Lona and Amy feels more real-life. Amy can’t quite understand what makes her daughter tick, and she doesn’t quite know how best to provide support, but the love there feels real.

The best character in the film, however, is guidance counselor Kathy, played magnificently by Helen Hunt. Hunt brings wisdom and empathy to the role, and the candy lining the walls of her office is a sugarcoat that makes the hard truths she tells Lona and Bennett easier to swallow, or at least to comprehend. Her importance to the teens is such that her untimely death, just after both Lona and Bennett are rejected from their dream schools, feels a bit too transparent—the deus does a bad job hiding in the machina that forces the debaters to lean on each other for support instead of their greatest confidant.

Aesthetically, Candy Jar‘s bright score, penchant for split-screen framing, and carefully intimate closeups fit firmly within the feel of modern indie young-love films, with a delightful splash of debate-inspired quirks. The most striking visual effect in the movie is the superimposition of text blocks across the faces of debating characters, each word quickly highlighted as it flies forth from a frantic mouth, the occasional stutter playfully holding up the progress. It’s enough to induce anxiety and hope that the next scene will bring speedy relief, and to make one question why on earth anyone does debate in the first place. (That said, high school quiz bowl wasn’t much less stressful.)

That question, of course, is a crucial one that Candy Jar poses, through the vehicle of Lona and Bennett’s chief competition for the state championship: public school rhetoricians Jasmine and Dana, who steal the hearts of the audience and their rivals with strident, personal arguments delivered at a slow, impactful pace. “We need to stop talking at each other,” Bennett says in response to Jasmine and Dana’s title-winning argument, “and start talking to each other.” And while Lona and Bennett’s come-to-Jesus moment smells slightly of cheese, the sentiment is carefully enough developed to have viewers nodding in agreement. What that means for the debate circuit is hard to say—the entire extracurricular is painted in such a poor light that we wonder why its dumb time requirements aren’t nixed, or even why it isn’t folded into speech competitions. Are high-achieving high school debaters who watch this film supposed to realize their futility of their pursuit, or at least the way they pursue it? Or are they supposed to take the next step, the step Candy Jar doesn’t take: explore the lives of the underprivileged who are lucky if they have debate coaches at all?

To me, the most important way Candy Jar could’ve been improved would’ve been to explore more of what growing up in single-parent, poor household meant to Lona, and not just to her mother. That aspect of Lona’s character withers next to her all-consuming desire for success, and when we see a character like Jasmine compared with her side-by-side, we wonder why Lona—by all appearances an incredibly bright, worldly young woman—hasn’t paused to consider her situation. And even at the end of the film, when she essentially resolves to become less robotic and more engaged with other people, that engagement doesn’t extend much beyond Bennett. Perhaps that’s an indictment of prep school culture as a whole, a fierce takedown of academies where even the development of empathy is motivated solely by events within the bubble. Perhaps, even at the end of the film, Lona and Bennett still have a ways to go on the road from androids to full, honest-to-god humans. But the fact that the comparison between Candy Jar‘s protagonists and the Jasmine/Dana duo only sparks surface-level realness seems to be a missed opportunity.

All the same, Candy Jar‘s leaving something to be desired is a powerful statement to anyone who has been driven to levels of mania by academic competition that once the automatic impulse to WIN AT ALL COSTS is defeated, only then does the world outside really begin. And the film is charming enough to inspire that taking of a deep breath in its audience…that is, if busy high schoolers and Columbia Law students can find an hour and a half to quit studying and watch it.