Review: ‘Unlikely’ is Not Here to Entertain, But to Educate

Unlikely is playing at Northwest Film Forum at 7:30pm on November 22nd, 7:30pm on November 23rd, 7:30pm on December 4th, 7:30pm on December 5th, and 7:30pm on December 6th.

When news of the “Varsity Blues” scandal broke out earlier this year, a spotlight was shown on the elitist and catering industry that is college admissions. Though multiple wealthy celebrities were found to have been directly bribing admissions officers and test proctors for their children’s benefit, it’s still no surprise that, even without cheating, students from wealthier families have statistically higher standardized test scores, and by extension, higher chances of college admission and graduation. Unlikely attempts to unpack this discrepancy and the reasons behind it with testimonials and statistics, while also offering plausible ways to address the issue on a national scale.

The strongest part of this documentary is easily the testimonies of the subjects. Each interviewee is a college dropout who details their experiences, circumstances, and what caused them to drop out of college, the reasons for which are largely financial. This is intercut with interviews of prominent college administrators who explain how university rankings and perception of reputation has shaped the way colleges do or don’t provide support for students from underprivileged backgrounds, and how high college dropout rates have a negative ripple effect on society, the economy, and politics. The development of the documentary’s point is quite straightforward, with the simple intent of exposing, educating, and inspiring. In its latter portion, the documentary follows its subjects’ returns to college, through various programs that allow them to obtain a degree while still working, raising a family, and supporting themselves. This decision to end the documentary on an optimistic note is a fresh change from the often depressing statistics and stories frequently heard in the news.

From the start, it’s obvious that Unlikely is not here to entertain; it maintains an appropriately serious tone throughout. However, herein lies its biggest flaw. Even with the sharp, optimistic turn towards the end, the majority of the documentary is spent in a static, monotonous state that quickly becomes underwhelming. Depressing facts about American higher education are dropped left and right like confetti, and the subjects’ testimonies, though resilient, are treated as uncomfortable sob stories. Too much time is spent on where the American higher education system is rather than where it could and should go. It is not difficult to believe that the subjects of the documentary were unfairly disadvantaged from the start of their respective college educations, but it is difficult to believe in the solutions proposed to combat this problem. The solutions offered in the documentary, while heartfelt and ambitious, seem to largely be one time occurrences between specific people, companies, or universities that happened to work out for certain people. While it is true that the subjects of the documentaries end up returning to college, the small scope of the application of solutions demonstrated subtract from the believability of the documentary’s conclusion.

I do not deny the truth or urgency of the problem Unlikely brings to show us. It is very much so a topical and educational watch that is easy to follow. However, even though it is a call to action, its near constant heavy tone has the opposite effect, causing viewers to sink into the quicksand of pessimism and failing to completely pull them out of it at the end. While Unlikely is certainly not a fun thing to watch, its relevance arguably makes it a necessary one.

3.5/5 STARS