“Acceptance” is in many ways an archetypical movie. The high-pressure prep school environment, the nerds who want to be cool but aren’t, the girl who can make said nerd look cool by holding his hand — all clichés of the high school drama. However, what makes this film unusual and therefore interesting is the fact that the protagonist, Rohan Patel, doesn’t gain “acceptance” into his school’s highest social circle through merit. Instead, he lies. The film, then, is not another narrative of a lovably flawed main character working his way to the top. It chronicles Rohan’s introspective journey towards discovering the meaning of true acceptance.
Created over the course of three years by Ryan Chan ’14 (director, producer and co-writer), the film is inspired by his and co-writer Vishnu Hari’s high school experiences. During their own admissions cycle, Hari lied to Chan about being admitted to Harvard, and the stressful academic environment depicted in the film is strongly influenced by both Chan and Hari’s memories of their highly competitive international high schools.
Rohan learns at the beginning of the film that he has been rejected from every Ivy League school except Harvard, because the Harvard decision date has been delayed. Given the mindset surrounding college application season, this is in many ways traumatic, particularly for students at his top-tier high school in Singapore. Rohan is made so insecure by his classmates’ obnoxious “X University Class of ’14” Facebook statuses that he decides to falsify one of his own, to Harvard. He wears a Harvard sweater to school the next day — and voilà! — he is invited to parties with the cool kids and dances with the most popular girl at school.
The film’s premise and execution lack some nuance. In his unprecedented social ascension, Rohan predictably leaves behind his equally lovable roommate and sidekick, Hyo, demonstrating his lack of appreciation for what is revealed to be the truest kind of acceptance — the acceptance of a best friend. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural at certain times, such as when the characters curse. When Rohan is clubbing with the cool kids, the stock bully approaches him and says, “This is a place for fucking. I’m gonna fuck you.” What he means by fuck, we will never know. The purpose of these scenes, I imagine, is to make apparent the characters’ staged ambivalence, but they come across as a heavy-handed attempt to remind the audience that they are, in fact, teenagers.
The drama of Rohan’s rise in popularity borders on the inconceivable. The moment Rohan reveals at school that he’s been accepted to Harvard, a classmate he does not appear to know invites him to a party that night. (It’s a Tuesday.) At the club, an attractive girl named Amber wordlessly approaches and begins dancing with. At school the next morning, they’re seen holding hands. While it clear that the two share a romantic relationship, Amber says little over the course of the film, leading him silently from party to party.
The film does, however, poignantly highlight the psyche and attitudes of second-semester seniors. Each character’s vulnerabilities are well illustrated, regardless of whether they have been accepted to their school of choice. Hyo, who is initially admitted to Cornell, develops a painfully uneasy — and entirely convincing — relationship with Rohan. As the only person privy to Rohan’s deception, Hyo is placed in the uncomfortable position of triumphing over his best friend in the college admissions game. The aforementioned bully character, who isn’t admitted to any Ivy League school, retorts at Rohan upon learning the truth, “At least I was upfront about my rejection.” His honesty represents a group of students, who in the face of failure, are nonetheless secure in themselves. As they each overcome the pressures of college decisions, the students’ shared humanity is revealed.
While the film is beautifully shot and successfully emulates the aesthetic of a private, academically rigorous high school, in the creation of this aesthetic it relies heavily on well-worn tropes. Nevertheless, “Acceptance” is an enjoyable viewing experience, rife with nostalgia and humor. It will no doubt bring audiences back to their transformative adolescent years.
Correction, May 5.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Ryan Chan’s class year as 2015 instead of 2014. It also referred to him as the film’s writer. In fact, he co-wrote “Acceptance” with Vishnu Hari.