Clarissa Santana, a mother of three, is one of the subjects of the documentary “Unlikely.” (Three Frame Media)

Rating: (1 star)

Higher education reform is one of the most fraught and controversial areas of American public policy today. Many people have strong feelings about the subject, whether because of their own college experiences or because they worry about their children. If a film intends to tackle education with the care and nuance the subject deserves, it should probably (a) narrow its focus or (b) be impeccably argued and researched. (“America to Me,” a 10-part docuseries about an Illinois high school, is both). Unfortunately, “Unlikely,” from husband-and-wife filmmakers Adam and Jaye Fenderson, accomplishes neither. Lazy and unfocused, it relies on brash emotional manipulation to hide the shortcomings of its arguments.

In opening narration, Jaye Fenderson explains how, as a former admissions officer at Columbia University, she gained firsthand knowledge of the inequality in higher education, with elite colleges favoring wealthier legacy applicants. But then the crux of the film shifts, following five prospective college students from across the country, each of whom is dealing with different hardships. One student enrolls in a predatory, non-accredited college, while another has performed well in high school but not on standardized tests. The film features the obligatory interviews with experts, including politicians and college administrators, along with misleading statistics.

The Fendersons appear flippant in the arguments they present, and never interrogate their underlying assumptions. They compare graduation rates in the United States, for example, with other developed countries, failing to acknowledge that those other countries, unlike the United States, have relatively homogenous populations, inexpensive tuition or education systems that bolsters skilled trades and apprenticeships.


Graduation caps are shown in a scene from the documentary “Unlikely.” (Three Frame Media)

In fact, “Unlikely” assumes every American needs a degree from a four-year college to contribute to society, when evidence suggests that there are good jobs, in high demand, for people without one. (A simple Internet search reveals several in-demand, high-paying jobs that do not require a degree: dental hygienist, industrial machine mechanic and massage therapist, for instance.) Sometimes, the film contradicts itself: One university president makes the observation that college recruitment videos cherry-pick the stories they share. Yet the Fendersons seem blind to the fact that their film does the same thing.

Beyond the half-baked arguments, none of the five students has a particularly compelling story to tell. The directors gloss over large sections of their subjects’ personal lives, omitting critical context. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to respect their privacy, but additional detail might help us connect to their struggles. Rather than investigate their lives, the Fendersons rely on gimmicky imagery and cloying musical cues, using Andra Day’s “Rise Up” so often that its refrain begins to sound borderline cynical. A montage of graduation ceremonies in the film’s final minutes shows no imagination or interest in composition, while its final image is downright saccharine. We’ve seen smartphone commercials with more subtlety than this.

The issues of inequality in standardized testing and admissions, and rising student debt are all worthy subjects in any discussion of education reform; each one could warrant its own documentary. But “Unlikely” hops around from topic to topic until its message is lost. Some of the reforms it advocates have been in place for years (such as a program at University of Maryland Baltimore County that caters to students who already have careers). There’s a section of the film that focuses on LeBron James, whose foundation offers scholarships for up to 2,300 students, while barely considering the difficulties of reproducing such charity on a larger scale.

Just because someone is a former college admissions officer, that doesn’t mean they’re an expert on higher education. Yes, colleges and universities prepare students for careers and the real world, but they also help sharpen critical thinking skills. The Fendersons seem to have skipped that class.

Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable, but the subject matter is geared to older audiences. 113 minutes.