The story of Accepted begins with a viral video: a young Black high school student sits in front of a computer, surrounded by friends and family, anxiously awaiting the results of his college admission. Suddenly, the room erupts into cheers: he’s been accepted into an Ivy League school, something that will alter the trajectory of his entire life. This is the feel good story, the video that will be shown on countless morning news shows as lip service to the idea that even as college admissions becomes more competitive, bright kids from modest backgrounds can still access the Ivy Leagues with hard work and perseverance. But the fact that it’s rare enough to merit special attention speaks to how entrenched in inequality the American higher education system is, and the T.M. Landry scandal in Accepted shows that there’s a much more complicated reality lurking behind the feel good story.

For many families in Louisiana, T.M. Landry Preparatory School was a miracle. In a state that continually ranks near the bottom in terms of education, and faces many issues of equity that fail their black and brown students, it seemed too good to be true that there could be a school with a 100% college acceptance rate that sent a third of its graduating seniors to Ivy League schools. The T.M. Landry founders credited their success to a nontraditional approach: they didn’t have a background in education, so they created a space that only vaguely resembled a classroom.

With no traditional classes, students were encouraged to devote a tremendous amount of time to ACT test prep, and faced daily lectures that were part pep talk, part tirade, some of which seemed to border on emotional abuse. (At one point, founder Mike Landry would tell a group of distraught young Black boys that based on statistics, three of them are going to die before they’re 25, and three will spend their lives in jail. Later, he separates a group of students into those he considers weak and those he considers strong, with the express intent of shaming the former). It’s allowed, because maybe he’s giving them tough love, showing them harsh realities so that they’re more motivated to succeed. Maybe this is what it takes to build students resilient enough to overcome adversity. After all, you can’t argue with their results.

But when a New York Times exposé reveals that T.M. Landry had been doctoring the transcripts of their Ivy-bound seniors: giving them credits for classes they’d never taken and plaudits from academic competitions they had never entered. Many of the students, understandably, felt confused and betrayed, as though they had been made a fool of. What was the point of all their hard work if it wasn’t the thing that was going to get them into college?

By unearthing this scandal, the New York Times also sheds light on the systemic inequalities that make it so difficult for lower income and minority students to get into big name colleges in the first place. As a college admissions scandal, it’s impossible to hear the story of T.M. Landry and not think of Operation Varsity Blues, a high-profile sting that showed celebrities and wealthy elites bribing universities into accepting their academically underperforming offspring by passing them off as promising student athletes.

And look, cheating is cheating, everyone should get into college on their own merits, etc, etc. But in Accepted, we’re forced to acknowledge the massive gulf of gray area that divides these two groups of students. One filled with already privileged teens whose parents use their wealth to buy them a prestigious education that the kids don’t actually value, and one comprised of disadvantaged youths who put the work in, have the grades and test scores that should make them competitive, but lack the time or money to devote to extracurriculars that universities have recently begun to prioritize. Both are wrong, per se, but at least one is trying to help poor kids who deserve to go to college.

As a documentary, Accepted makes dramatic tonal shifts as it is forced to turn on a dime, processing the scandal while already in the midst of filming. Some of the most fascinating moments are when the legitimacy of footage seen earlier in the film is directly contradicted by students who admit to being manipulated by their teachers into performing for the camera to make the school, and in particular the founders, look better. It’s these kids who make up the heart of Accepted, and the filmmakers treat them with the utmost compassion. They are both the heroes and the victims of the film, and it’s impossible not to root for their success, regardless of the machinations of the adults in their lives. Accepted is an exploration of a college admissions scandal, on the surface, but it also stands as a stunning rebuke of the racist and classist standards in place at most colleges that disproportionately disadvantage students of color.

Rating: ★★