“The College Admissions Scandal,” which stars Mia Kirshner as a Brentwood antiheroine, sheds light and truth on its themes with an authenticity only accessible by excellent trash.
The great college-admissions swindle—the scheme of bribery and fraud exposed, in March, by a federal investigation named Operation Varsity Blues—is, of course, a story for the ages. In the fullness of time, the charging documents will supply grist for a thousand narratives of grift and graft. For now, though, the first draft of fantasy arrives on Lifetime. It’s a movie called “The College Admissions Scandal,” scheduled to air this weekend, even before the actor Felicity Huffman, who was convicted of paying for a proctor to correct her daughter’s SATs, reports to serve her fortnight in lockup. The cold austerity of the film’s title nicely suits the bluntness of its style and content, which pummel the topic in an extremely gratifying fashion.
Often, when Lifetime traffics in true crime, it spins fables of women in peril, girls on the run, and demented nursemaids. Here, examining white-collar criminality and rich-white-lady problems, it wraps raw nerves in layers of camp, to produce both a cautionary tale about entitlement and a Schadenfreude melodrama. It’s written on the level of a “Knots Landing” special event, but as acted by its superfluously talented leads, Penelope Ann Miller and Mia Kirshner, it speaks to the emotional deformity encouraged by contemporary fashions in child rearing.
The antiheroines are Brentwood moms who were driven to lives of crime by lofty ambitions and high-status anxiety. Caroline (Miller) is the more sympathetic of the two. She is said to be an interior decorator, but her life style has big S.A.H.M. energy. This warm person expects to see a return on her copious emotional investment in her son, Danny, a high-school junior. One morning in March, 2018, Caroline and her husband have another quarrel with their Danny regarding his priorities. They want him to do enough test prep and application-padding activities to earn a bid to Palo Alto. He wants to play guitar with his band and be a kid, man. The intergenerational tension is as thick as a hysterical TV ad for a tutoring franchise.
Soon Caroline joins her peer moms (and a dad) for a round of coffee. The mothers strut and fret about placing their offspring on appropriate life paths. Bethany (Kirshner) swans soigné onto the café patio. In her ripe Cali drawl, Bethany tells the ladies that she plans to hire Rick Singer, a wizardly college consultant, on behalf of her daughter, Emma, with the aim of lifting her from the sewer of Skidmore to the mighty spires of Yale. There is a captivating oddity to how this tastily detestable character speaks, as if her frontal lobe were programmed with grammar and usage flash cards. (She goes out of her way to make a point about the distinction between feeling “contempt” and “disdain”; elsewhere, as a bitchy flourish, she flamboyantly calls attention to her interlocutor’s use of the subjunctive.) She has grown rich in the financial-services industry, and one of the series’ ornamental mentions of Aspen comes when a Singer associate lists the locations of her five houses.
Six months later, the kids are taking the SATs, while moms are pacing around the parking lot at the test location like expectant fathers smoking Chesterfields outside an obstetrics unit. After the scores are posted, Bethany makes moves to push Emma through the “side door” of admissions to a fine school, with the girl’s knowledge and coöperation. The kid, motivated by the chance to join her James Franco–looking boyfriend in New Haven, helps stage photos to sell her fabricated résumé as a soccer star. Caroline and her husband, meanwhile, have hesitated to pony up a quarter of a million dollars to assure Danny’s future. Their debates on situational ethics and self-justification are effective precisely because of their broadness. But then the husband, an unaccountably stubble-faced corporate attorney, shows up one day at his firm, and his boss is popping bottles to toast his kid’s acceptance to Princeton. The grass is so green that it demands trespass. Danny’s parents pull the trigger, and they try to run the scam without him getting wise to it. There is no sex in the movie—unless you count the scene where the Yale boyfriend shirtlessly explicates Jane Austen’s use of irony in “Pride and Prejudice”—but there’s a manifestly erotic quality to all the domestic conspiring and half-drunk-on-white-wine self-rationalizing, as the parents seduce themselves into going through with it.
Some viewers might find “The College Admissions Scandal” a bit overheated in its class analysis, as when F.B.I. agents openly scoff at the privilege of the culprits, in an interrogation room lit like a dime-store noir. To me, the film sheds light and truth on its themes with an authenticity only accessible by excellent trash. The movie knows a thing that is, apparently, rather difficult to say: that the system of higher learning in the United States is not just an adjunct to the class system or handmaiden of it. It is the class system, and the whole thing is a scam at its essence. (Like Joel Goodsen in “Risky Business,” Rick Singer dealt in human fulfillment, an endlessly enticing product with a broad market base.) The crimes described here seem heinous because they subvert the founding myths of meritocracy, and this Lifetime movie—with its strokes of low-brow expressionism, its inadvertently funny production values, its clever lead performances—converts the news story into an exhilarating nightmare. You hate these parents and you feel for them, and each feeling intensifies the other.