Reminiscent of Michael Apted’s “Up” series (the most recent edition of which, “63 Up,” opens on Dec. 13 at the Kendall Square Cinema), Pamela Littky’s “Most Likely to Succeed” follows for 10 years four students chosen as the most likely to succeed in their high school graduating class. What success will they actually achieve, and by what standard?
They include two white kids from affluent backgrounds and two African-American kids from struggling families in Detroit. Littky does not make a big deal about the disparity in backgrounds or engage directly with social issues but focuses on her subjects as individuals, their doubts, successes, setbacks, resolve, and resilience. You worry about them and root for them, because they are all good people trying to find their way.
Littky opens every episode with a quote from some famous person on the nature of success, and none of these definitions involve money or possessions or fame. After 10 years all four have achieved success of this kind, though for some it is easier than others. In a moment of poignant self-awareness, one of the more fortunate students acknowledges the advantages he has over those who don’t have his means, opportunities, and privileges, who have to worry about such things as paying rent, repaying student loans, and overcoming prejudice.
“Most Likely to Succeed” can be seen on VOD on Dec. 6.
Cheryl Horner McDonough’s “Parkland Rising” opens with a warning that “The following film contains images and sounds of gun violence which may be disturbing to some viewers.” That refers to the shots and screams recorded on cellphones held by students cowering behind desks as a gunman roamed through Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, and murdered 17 of their fellow students.
This warning does not prepare you for the traumatized silence that seizes a convivial group of survivors when the gunshots are mentioned. Or for the hate and wrath and obscene threats they confronted when they started a grass-roots movement to enact gun control laws.
But they persisted. McDonough follows these kids over the course of nine months. They start out hand-drawing signs on a kitchen table and within a month they have brought about the Washington March for Our Lives demonstration, in which hundreds of thousands participated. Their activism and media appearances make them the standard-bearers for the gun control movement and by urging young people to vote in the November 2018 midterm election they undoubtedly helped the Democrats win a majority in the House of Representatives. Even so, reports of new mass shootings appear almost daily in the news.
Their cause is daunting, but the film ends by noting that the newly elected Democratic-controlled House passed a background check law, the first such legislation in 25 years (though the bill has been blocked from a Senate vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell). Perhaps the most hopeful moment occurs when the students engage with counter-demonstrators in a dialogue, and it seems that rational discussion is possible and common ground can be found.
“Parkland Rising “ screens on Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Cheryl Horner McDonough and subjects Manuel Oliver, Patrica Oliver, Jaclyn Corin, Jammal Lemy, Rebecca Boldrick, Kevin Hogg, and John E. Rosenthal, co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence. Meghna Chakrabarti, host of WBUR’s “On Point,” will moderate.
The pattern is depressingly familiar. A bully with diabolical insight into the needs of vulnerable people forms a cult, assures his followers of their superiority while demolishing their individuality, demonizes those who oppose him, introduces an alternate reality made up of lies, asserts his absolute authority, and sexually abuses his victims. It works with politicians, priests, leaders of sects, movie producers, professors, and in Eva Orner’s cogently crafted and infuriating documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator,” with the yoga instructor, conman, and sociopath of the title.
At first Bikram Choudhury’s story — his version of it — seems convincing, impressive, even inspiring. As a youth he repeatedly won India’s national yoga championship until a barbell was dropped on his leg, shattering it. Doctors wanted to amputate, but Choudhury learned exercises from another yogi that healed his leg. He vowed to make this system known to the world.
When President Richard Nixon was suffering from phlebitis and was about to have his leg amputated, Choudhury visited him and instructed him in the same methods. He saved the president’s leg (though not his presidency) and in gratitude Nixon gave him a green card, allowing Choudhury to establish his own school of yoga in Los Angeles. From there Choudhury spread his teachings across the country, changing lives and healing people. He became a media sensation and a celebrity and he would tell variations of this story on talk shows, in magazine articles, even on “60 Minutes.” And as Orner reveals, almost none of it is true.
But celebrities like Frank Sinatra, George Harrison, and Shirley MacLaine swore by him. Thousands joined his program, taking mass classes in overheated rooms where they underwent excruciating exercises while bullied by Choudhury as he reclined under an air conditioner. He would choose favored students, attractive young women for the most part, to undertake special training to become instructors themselves. They would open hundreds of centers bearing his brand and adding to his profits. He made millions, bought mansions and Bentleys, and sexually assaulted many of those who revered, feared, and trusted him.
Not until the 2010s did victims dare to speak out, and Orner recounts their frustrating attempts to bring Choudhury to justice. A compelling investigation into how a powerful man can commit abuse with impunity, the film is a distressing reminder of the power of cults and the amorality of those who lead them.
“Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” is on Netflix.