“For students in high school, there’s this feeling of suffocation,” begins the trailer for HBO’s new original documentary film, My So-Called High School Rank.
Noting how stressful high-school is for teens, Kyle Holmes and David Taylor Gomes of Sacramento’s Granite Bay High School created a show, Ranked, that turned the difficult high-school experience into a musical. Now that process is an original documentary film on HBO and HBO Max, produced and directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.
Ranked was already in development when in 2019 the so-called “Varsity Blues” college-admissions scandal broke, revealing that parents – including celebrities – had paid large sums of money to get their kids into certain schools. The play’s timing and subject matter spoke to a culture in which students feel pressure to succeed at any cost.
“In writing the musical Ranked, we wanted to amplify everything our students were saying to us,” says one of the creators in the trailer.
As news emerged of the production, other schools reached out, wanting to stage their own productions. High schoolers around the country connected with the show’s themes as they sought to find their place in the world amid intense college admissions competition.
The film chronicles auditions and rehearsals at three high schools from Ripley, W.V., to Cupertino, Calif., as well as to the Bronx, N.Y., where students face similar challenges despite dramatically different life circumstances.
In spring 2020, the students’ worlds were upended by both the global pandemic and the sociopolitical turmoil that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Through video diaries, the film follows students and teachers as they confront challenges without the creative connection and community that the arts, particularly theater, had previously provided. Despite their isolation, the students find new ways to cope and connect, until their dreams are finally realized in a final performance in the spring of 2021 on the eve of their graduation.
Besides Holmes and Taylor Gomes, the film also features students, parents and staff of Granite Bay High School and Cupertino High School in California, Fordham High School for the Arts in New York City, and Ripley High School in West Virginia. Stern and Sundberg produce and director along with senior producer Alexander Baertl. Executive producers Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller and senior producer Tina Nguyen worked on the film for HBO.
Documentary film My So-Called High School Rank premieres Tuesday, November 29 on HBO and HBO Max.