As I was sitting inside the DeBoest Lecture Hall inside the Indianapolis Museum of Art awaiting the Indy Film Fest's world premiere of the Indiana produced short film The Dean's List, I looked around and realized that I was surrounded by a large crowd of youths who were likely 1/3 my age yet twice as intelligent.
I watched these young people, some of whom had participated in the filming of The Dean's List and some of whom were there as a show of support for a film borne out of a two-week long introductory film class taught by Director Denis Hennelly and Writer/Producer Andie Redwine involving a group of exceptional high school juniors and seniors from the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities. The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities was founded in 1988 by the Indiana General Assembly and is located on the campus of Muncie's Ball State University. The Indiana Academy serves as a residential high school for approximately 300 gifted juniors and seniors from across the State of Indiana, while it is also tasked with developing outreach programs that "stimulate and enable vitality in educational programs for academically gifted students and teachers."
I have multiple friends who are Indiana Academy alumni and they are, without exception, some of the most intelligent, compassionate, and completely nerdish people in my life.
I adore them.
The Dean's List, while officially directed by Denis Hennelly and guided in its writing by Andie Redwine, both established film industry professionals, is really the cinematic voice of a small group of gifted and talented high school students tasked with telling their story. This story, The Dean's List, is a special story because one can envision a group of students sitting around searching through their hearts, minds, and memories trying to peel away the layers of their life experiences to find the story that truly needed to be told.
The Dean's List isn't a perfect film, but it's a film that perfectly expresses a slice of life for this particular group of Indiana Academy students. Judging from the audience response at its world premiere at 9pm on a Wednesday night in Indianapolis with a crowd filled nearly to the brim with Indiana Academy students, alumni, staff and supporters, it's a film that will resonate deeply with those who've had similar experiences and will likely make even the Indiana Academy outsider smile with its warm, funny and touching story of a gifted and talented student's first experience with academic failure.
I smiled. I smiled a lot. I remembered my own days as a teenager with a disability struggling to deal with a public school system that could never quite figure out how to teach me or how I best learned. So, I failed. I failed a lot. I somehow got my act together in my last year and a half of high school thanks to an abundance of journalism and drama classes and a sudden awareness that my spark of intelligence was really ignited by creative expression. I graduated from high school with a 2.5 GPA wondering if I would ever be seen as anything but "disabled.'
I smiled a pained smile as I remembered the Home Economics teacher who somehow thought giving a grade of D- - - was a good idea. "Hey, at least you didn't fail," she explained.
Yet, I also smiled genuine smiles and tears of joy as I recalled the overwhelming joy I discovered when I found a small private college, Indy's own Martin University, and a wonderful Catholic nun named Sister Marian Ruth took the time to figure me out.
I graduated as valedictorian of my class. Who knew I had a brain?
The Dean's List is that kind of film. It's the kind of film that makes you appreciate these young people while also reflecting back on your own life whether you were a nerd, a band geek, a cheerleader, a jock, or a thug.
Sorry, I was having a Breakfast Club flashback.
The story centers around Harper, touchingly portrayed by Sofia Nelson, a young woman who seemingly enjoys the Indiana Academy life yet who is struggling academically and has received her first "D" ever. EVER. If you've ever been around a young person who has experienced failure for the first time, you'll see it in Sofia Nelson's simple and honest performance. Nelson infuses Harper with both a vulnerability and a sort of quiet aching that makes you just want to wrap your arms around her and remind her of her worth.
Of course, that's what friends are for and that's ultimately the story that unfolds in the occasionally funny, occasionally endearing, and nearly always insightful The Dean's List. I'm sure that cliques exist on some level at Indiana Academy, though as I was sitting in the DeBoest Lecture Hall surrounded by these current and former NerdHerders I had the strongest feeling that this was the kind of communal experience that is strived for at Indiana Academy and one that lives on amongst Indiana Academy as they seek to use their gifted and talented selves as a force for good in the world.
But, then again, maybe I'm projecting because I was too busy laughing and crying over the course of the 15 minutes I spent watching The Dean's List surrounded by people I was starting to think I understood.
What unfolds in The Dean's List is, I suppose, an academic and social intervention of sorts as Rian (Madeline Fairman), Dutch (Caelum Mrocek), Duncan (Emmanuel Kwakye) and Layla (Hannah Dewitt) all unite forces, or at least mostly unite, in an effort to remind Harper that momentary failures can't strip us of the gifted and talented human beings that we are.
I must confess that I struggled to a degree in deciding how to rate and review The Dean's List. I will also confess that my darkly humorous side pondered giving the film a "D" just for fun.
Then, I remembered that I'm not Rex Reed.
There are times when watching The Dean's List that you will be reminded that it is a student short brought to life over the course of a two-week academic program, but I would argue that this is a huge factor in the film's success as an authentic slice of high school life rather than the usual Hollywood stylized drivel we so often see unfold on the big screen. The Dean's List feels real because it is real.
Sometimes, it is our flaws that bring us to our perfection.
The Dean's List is a simple, funny and yet powerful reminder that it's not our failures that define us but how we respond to them. It's also a reminder, I'd dare say, that we belong to one another and we need to take that responsibility seriously even when we're having a whole lot of fun. It's also a film that seems to realize that gifted and talented students are far more than simply gifted and talented students. They are delightfully complex human beings with thoughts, feelings, fears, anxieties, needs and wants.
In other words, they're perfect.
The Dean's List screens one more time at Indy Film Fest on Saturday, July 25th at 11:45am in DeBoest Lecture Hall.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic