CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — “My So-Called High School Rank” is a brand new HBO documentary that focuses on three different schools from across the country as they prepare to perform their yearly theatrical productions, and one is in West Virginia.

“My So-Called High School Rank” movie poster, courtesy Sunshine Sachs

The three schools featured in the documentary are:

  • Cupertino High School, a racially diverse school in California in the shadow of big tech.
  • Fordham School for the Arts, which is located in the Bronx and only 30 minutes away from Central Park.
  • Ripley High School in Jackson County, West Virginia, where the school system is the second largest employer in the county.

The schools were all set to perform the play “Ranked,” which first debuted in April of 2018, and is about a dystopian future where a student’s rank in school determines their entire future. If you fall below the average, you can say goodbye to college and become a social outcast. In the play, one character is revealed to have his rank paid for by his parents.

“My So-Called High School Rank” producers and directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg saw the musical as an interesting lens into the anxiety, tension and pressure that students and families are feeling to get their kids into “elite schools,” or just into college in general.

“At the time when they wrote this musical, people thought ‘that’s a little too far, people aren’t gonna bribe to raise your rank,’ and sure enough it was very prescient,” Stern said in an interview with 12 News.

Just two weeks after the play’s debut, the “Varsity Blues” college admission scandal came to light, a criminal conspiracy where over 50 wealthy parents and celebrities were accused of paying bribes of hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure their children would be admitted to top colleges. Among them was Lori Loughlin, best known for her role as Rebecca in “Full House.”

The scandal convinced Stern and Sundberg that college pressure is worth exploring in a documentary, and a play that focused on those exact topics would be the perfect lens to look through.

Why Ripley, West Virginia?

Sten and Sundberg said they picked Ripley High School because of how different Ripley is from other schools that were performing the play, both racially and socio-economically. Ripley High School is central to the town’s sense of community, and the theater program also acted as a haven for students, somewhere they didn’t feel the everyday pressures of school social life.

“Going into the theater room, being on that stage with everyone, I felt like we were all able to be ourselves. It was like this pressure of trying to be part of some different social status was completely gone there. When we were all on that stage everyone felt the same. All the status quo just disappeared.”

Leo Mollohan, Ripley High School student

Evan Bain was one of the students at Ripley High School who was featured in the documentary, along with his fellow classmate Leo Mollohan. Both students said they had a hard time comprehending that Hollywood had come to West Virginia. When the other theater students of Ripley High School heard there would be a documentary crew coming to their school, they initially didn’t believe it was happening. According to Leo and Evan, the documentary wasn’t talked about that much outside of the theater department.

“It didn’t feel real for a while, we simply chose not to believe it because that was easier than believing that HBO was coming to Ripley High School. Once they did show up, it was weird for about a week, and then they just fell in with us. It felt natural,” Bain said.

Of course, with cameras always come concerns over how West Virginia and the Appalachian region as a whole will be presented to the rest of the country, especially when the project will be available on one of the largest streaming platforms available, but both students interviewed by 12 News said they were happy with how Ripley was shown in the film.

“I feel like they represented us really well. A lot of us were worried that there would be banjos playing in the background every time we were on screen, you know? The stereotypical stuff you see in shows that start with the word ‘Appalachia,’ but no, I feel like we were represented very well. Very respectfully,” Bain said.

While in Ripley, Stern said she and Sundberg were taken in by students like Leo and Evan, saying their personal lives and aspirations were varied and interesting, and were a diverse group of kids when it came to what they wanted to do with their lives. 

“Their story, their ability to portray themselves—their aspirations, what inspired them, their goals for their lives, that’s really just what we ended up putting on the screen and so, they have themselves to thank for their portrayal of West Virginia,” Stern said.+

Filming in a Pandemic

Because of the pandemic, directors Stern and Sundberg said there were many logistical challenges and a lot of “learning on our feet.” It was a lot of Purell, masks and wiping down cameras. Crew members had to get tested regularly, and tests needed to be turned around quickly, something that wasn’t easy to do early on in the pandemic.

Because of isolation, students were also difficult to get ahold of as many of them weren’t in school. Interviews over zoom were especially difficult.

“As a filmmaker, all you want to do, especially with documentaries, is connect with your subject and the pandemic did not make that easy,” said Sundberg.

For Leo and Evan, the pandemic wasn’t much better for them either, but having a documentary to work on during that time certainly came in handy with breaking up the monotony of learning from home, and spending most of the day inside their bedroom away from friends.

“Having this documentary and having something to work on and be a part of during that time really did help us get through it. It helped a lot just being able to talk about how I feel on camera because nobody wants to hear you complain, everyone else is going through this,” Leo said.

Unfortunately, Ripley High School, along with many other schools across the country, never got to perform its rendition of “Ranked” before plays were permitted back in school, as many of the students who had roles in the play graduated the previous year.

Songwriter for “Ranked” David Taylor Gomes rehearsing his musical with the students of Granite Bay High School, courtesy Sunshine Sachs

“We didn’t want to have to recast it because so many of those parts that the seniors had, we could not imagine anyone else doing those parts, so the next year we just decided to do something completely different,” Leo Mollohan said.

What’s so special about “Ranked?”

The play certainly connected with many students, as well as the directors. Ricki felt the music of the play also resonated with people, translating well to current global events like the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the protests that followed, particularly with the song Come Up For Air

“That was a surprising, kind of wonderful twist for us, that the music became the soundtrack for the actual documentary in a way that we had never thought it would be,” Stern said.

I think that this documentary is so important because I think everyone can relate to it, and parents can learn a lot about their children from it. When I was watching it, this is a story of high school and college students dealing with their anxiety, but also about them following their dreams. It’s every day, normal students, and I think that’s such an important story to tell.

Leo Mollohan, Ripley High School student

Despite being a major aspect of the play, Leo and Evan both said neither of them cared about their ranks in high school very much, though the fact that “Ranked” was a new play meant that there were hardly any previous performances to look to for inspiration, and students really had to make the roles their own.

“In high school, I did not care about my rank at all. I didn’t even know that was a thing, it sounded absurd. I had to step back and think, ‘people care about this, why?’ I didn’t understand it. But then we started doing the musical and I was like ‘oh, this is something that does matter,’ it can change so much about your life, and then I realized that maybe I do actually care about it,” Leo Mollohan said.

Since the documentary, Leo and Evan have both graduated high school and are now attending college. Leo Mollohan is currently attending the Columbus College of Arts majoring in Animation and is very happy with his choice of school. Evan Bain said after being around a documentary crew for two years, he gained an interest in the field and is now majoring in Digital Media Production at WVU in Parkersburg, something he says he enjoys much more than business, his previous major.

If you want to watch “My So-Called High School Rank,” and the stories of Leo, Evan and countless other students from across the country, the film is available now on HBO.