There is no more terrifying title card a filmmaker can deploy these days than “March 2020,” when you know far more than the director does about what the future is going to bring. In Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s “My So-Called High School Rank,” it surely brought chaos to the production, which had been tracking the progress of “Ranked,” a musical birthed at Granite Bay High School in Sacramento with legitimate aspirations of making it to the Broadway stage after the school’s drama teacher Kyle Holmes and musical director David Taylor Gomes held themselves to a higher standard than most and brilliantly licensed out their work to other schools across the country to build steam towards the most ambitious staging possible. All of that comes to a halt on March 10th, commemorated in the doc when the teens at a high school in Cupertino find out 10 days before opening night that they won’t be taking the stage and the meetings that Holmes and Gomes had in New York suddenly evaporate, and while it likely derailed Stern and Sundberg’s plan to tell of students facing incredible pressure to plan out their future before they have a hold on who they are or what they’re capable of, the pandemic ends up proving a point they might not have reached otherwise when fretting about what’s ahead can’t be justified when no one knows what the future could bring.
Wisely, the veteran directors behind “The Devil Came on Horseback” and “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” lean into the abrupt turn of events that befall filming, broken into three acts to honor the theatrical production at its center, but really two separate halves divided by life before and after COVID. They start out making the film you half-expect, done more exhaustively recently (sans musical numbers) in Debbie Lum’s “Try Harder” when they ask students as Holmes and Gomes once did about how they’re feeling about their college prospects and more importantly what anxiety they may be experiencing as they’re trying to keep their grades high and fill out applications. Besides Cupertino where rehearsals for “Ranked” are in progress, the filmmakers travel to Ripley, West Virginia where another staging is being set up at the local high school with arguably more participants eager to eventually find their way into showbiz, albeit in specialties such as animation and special effects, but no way of knowing what path they should even be on to get there. (One student is asked whether she’s considered Ivy League schools and she doesn’t know what that is.) With the music from “Ranked” reverberating with the student accounts of the crushing expectations they face, Holmes and Gomes’ achievement becomes clear when the freshness of this approach to articulating this stress cuts through the noise, but it also threatens to become an echo chamber when the steady march towards opening night appears predictable and resolving little in the students’ lives.
Ironically when “My So-Called High School Rank” enters the time of quarantine, it really opens up when it picks up at Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx where administrators start undertaking a virtual production of “Ranked.” After taking a broad view of student concerns, the film narrows in on two students at Fordham – Jolimar and Isaiah, whose lives are vastly different to the students that the filmmakers had been following in the Bay Area as the children of single parents who are singularly focused on acting careers, while keeping an eye on Leo, a non-binary kid in West Virginia with indefatigable spirit and confidence yet without an obvious place to put their energy, and Semih, a senior in Cupertino whose ambivalence about the future has clearly put a strain on his relationship with his father, a Turkish immigrant who now has a Porche and a Lamborghini parked in the family garage. Ultimately, none of these students would appear to lose a second of sleep where they rank among their class, but how they’ll make their own space in the world becomes a more compelling question than how they’ll fit in. When circumstances led “My So-Called High School Rank” down the path less traveled to find something more intriguing, one suspects these kids will be alright.