If You Loved ‘Booksmart’, You’ll Be Obsessed With Netflix’s ‘Candy Jar’

If last year’s 'Booksmart' was the party film for teens who didn’t party in high school, Candy Jar is straight up the film for teens who didn’t party.

Candy Jar Netflix

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“We were never really high schoolers, ” says a movie-handsome nerd over fries and milkshakes in the middle of a senior-year crisis.

Like any genre, teen films can be formulaic.

It’s enough to think “you’ve-seen-one-you’ve-seen-them-all”, but this can be a disservice. Yes, teen films can be formulaic enough for parody films like Not Another Teen Movie to exist, but this type of thinking is defeatist, and we need to get beyond that.

That is how some gems fall through the cracks.

Which brings me to Candy Jar, a 2018 Netflix film which came out quietly, and has been buried by the algorithm ever since. However, it is very special (to me) and one of the best, loveliest teen films you’re not watching.

Teens Who Never Party

If last year’s Booksmart was the party film for teens who didn’t party in high school, Candy Jar is straight up the film for teens who didn’t party.

I’m talking the Rory Gilmore’s of the world: They got ambition, drive, and their whole career planned out. They know where they want to end up and know how to get there. Anything else is a distraction. You know the type (it might even be you).

Candy Jar focuses on Lona Skinner (Sami Gayle) and Bennett Russell (Jacob Latimore), two ridiculously high-achieving teens and rival members of the Hemlock Prep Debate Club.

These guys have been academic rivals their entire lives, and everything they do is to get into the colleges of their dreams: Harvard for Lona and Yale for Bennett. Neither of them has any friends, except for a dependency on their school counsellor, Kathy (Helen Hunt) who fills her office with jars of candy (now the title makes sense, lol).

Everything is going to plan until they are forced to work together and enter the debate tournament as a team. Gasp!

A Film With A Lot Of Heart

Enemies to friends to (lovers? Maybe?). This all sounds pretty standard thus far, but there is a lot to love about this film. For one thing, it has a lot of heart.

The debate team faculty advisor quotes films like Whiplash, Rudy and Fight Club, the editing has fun with split screens and Wes Anderson-esque from above shots.

Lona and Bennett both skip their homecoming dance to go to the movies to watch some foreign cinema in their school-dance finery (I think about this scene, specifically, everyday).

Christina Hendricks and Uzo Aduba are both excellent as Lona and Bennett’s mothers, who have a rivalry of their own. They are both raising their children as single mothers and have very different financial situations yet are no less loving and supportive.

Speaking of, the film explores class not only through its main characters, but with the fellow debaters from another school, Jasmine (Antonia Gentry) and Dana (Ariana Guerra).

Whereas hardcore debaters train themselves to speak 400 words a minute, so that they can cram more facts and points into their allotted time, Jasmine and Dana speak slower, more like slam poetry.

When it comes to the topic of whether the cost of a college education outweighs the benefits, they use anecdotal evidence about their school which doesn’t have as much financial support, access or opportunities as Hemlock Prep.

Their aim is not to get the most points, but to get their point across.

The Rory Gilmore Of It All

Lona and Bennett both make getting into Harvard and Yale their entire identities.

Their rooms are filled with paraphernalia, and their costuming even reflects their chosen schools, red and blue. These are very top-level dreams and goals, but a twist during the film renders them feeling lost and questioning if Ivy League schools — and college — is the only way to be successful, despite years of teachers and society telling them it is. (It isn’t, and it is important for you to remember that).

It is this uncertainty about the future which is so real and palpable that makes this film so special.

The film sounds formulaic, and it depicts a very specific type of teenager, but uncertainty about the future and life after high school is something which feels universal.

It’s a very valid concern, as teenagers are forced to make life-defining decisions at 17, and for those who have it all planned out, any faltering off course can spin into a panic.

The High School Experience

At one point during the film, Bennett asks Lona how many football games she has been to, how many parties, if she ever goofed off in class or passed notes.

Having done none of these things, Lona asks “Is that high school to you?” Bennett replies, “I don’t know, I was too busy with homework, tests and debate.”

Here’s the thing. When it comes to what it means to be a teenager and the high school experience, teen films and stories about being a teenager always come up with the same images; wild high school parties and wild romances, Friday nights with your best friends, driving around all night and getting up to shenanigans, school dances, football games.

As these beats occur over and over again, these images become the accepted ideal of what it means to be a teenager. It’s enough to make you think that if you didn’t do any or all of these things, you doubt if you have ever really been a teenager at all.

As if being a teenager isn’t full of enough anxieties and pressure! Now we gotta worry about whether we did it right?

How To Be A Teenager

Of course, the idea of there being a universally accepted way of being a teenager is bullshit. It took me a while to realise this.

There are so many different ways to be a teenager. No one experience is the same, especially when it comes to breaking away from the cishet white norms.

However, what makes us come back to teen films time and time again, are the ways they can accurately articulate the emotions of adolescence.

Whether or not we did high school or being a teenager right is one of them. Another is the uncertainty of the future. When they get it right is hits hard, because hey now, you’re not alone! You’re not the only one who feels this way! It’s comforting, satisfying, nostalgic.

Seeing yourself on screen is powerful stuff, especially during the identity-forming years of adolescence.

Teen Screen

In this column, I’m going to write about all the different ways to be a teenager, as shown in teen screen of all kinds.

Before we go forward, here is my definition of teen screen: a film or television show about teenagers and adolescence, to be discussed for what they say about adolescence and their representations.

Whether it be revisiting old favourites, interrogating what’s new, celebrating those which diversify what we see on screen, or questioning why there always seems to be a pool in coming-of-age movies, I hope we have some fun exploring these films which help us grow up.

Claire White is a writer/bookseller based in Melbourne. She is a Teen Screen Tragic/Scholar, wrote a thesis about on-screen depictions of girlhood, and dyed her hair red to be like Molly Ringwald. Find her on Twitter @theclairencew.

Teen Screen is Junkee’s column on youth in TV and film, by Claire White.