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‘First Generation’ shows perils of pre-college navigating

Each of the film’s stories turns on the absence or presence of an adult armed with encouragement and information.

There are parts of “First Generation” that will make you very, very angry. In scene after scene, adults systematically undermine the ambitions of this documentary’s four bright protagonists, who are the first members of their families ever to try to get into — and pay for — college.

There’s the counselor who plants the seed of doubt in Cecilia, who has her heart set on the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). It’s a reach, the woman tells her; she ought to make sure her personal essay sets her apart.

But Cecilia, we learn as the film unfolds, is already in a league of her own. Her 1,950 SAT score makes her a contender for the top 50 universities in the country, and her cross-country record makes her a scholarship prospect.

Plus, she’s got grit — though she fears that telling her story in the aforementioned essay will reflect poorly on her. She’s the daughter of two migrant farm workers. Her father was deported to Mexico after a brief stay in jail.

When her mother makes it clear joining him is her priority, Cecilia finds another home. Despite the lack of reliable support, she continues to ace her Advanced Placement classes.

Two screenings this week

Where does Cecilia end up? I’m not going to tell you. You should instead plan to attend one of the Twin Cities screenings of “First Generation” scheduled to take place Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

I will tell you that the final twist involves Cecilia’s inability to pay the $50 application fee to her dream school — and the far more shocking fact that none of the adults who see her shiny potential thinks to tell her that UCLA will waive that fee.

Following a stint in juvenile detention, Dontay struggles his way onto the honor roll at his high school in Watts. Soma lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his nine-member family, which presses him not to go.

And then there’s Jess, whose academic standing could win her a full ride to a top four-year school — if only someone told her there was financial aid beyond loans. The coup de grâce that completely deflates her: Realizing that after graduation her father intends to pocket the $200 a month in child support her mother is dependent on, rather than let Jess use it for college.

What happens when they do get to college? Nearly 90 percent of first-generation, low-income students drop out. That’s four times the national average. That misfortune will add up over their lifetimes to an average of $1 million in lost income.

Adult support is key

Each of the film’s stories turns on the absence or presence of an adult armed with encouragement and information. And so “First Generation” should leave you deeply grateful for efforts like AchieveMPLS’ investment in college and career centers in every high school in Minneapolis.

(Side note: AchieveMPLS just launched CollegeCrewMpls.org, a blog written by 10 recent high school grads who are navigating college. The idea is to provide a safe space for students beginning to think about the journey to hear from them.)

The Oct. 1 screening will take place at the Landmark Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis at 6 p.m. Filmmakers Jaye and Adam Fenderson will be there, along with protagonist Dontay Gray; Arnise Roberson, who heads Achieve’s career and college readiness programs; and Jana Vanderah of Wells Fargo Education Financial Services.

The second screening will take place Oct. 2 at the Wellstone Center-Neighborhood House in St. Paul. Both showings are free, but RSVPs are requested as space is limited.

I had signed up to moderate a discussion after the Minneapolis screening, but I lack the life-management skills that make the film’s young stars shine and double-booked myself. TPT Partnership and Engagement Manager Rebeka Ndosi, who has been working on the broadcast organization’s “American Graduate” initiative, will instead lead the discussion.

You should go. I went to college and still came away from my preview viewing vowing to be sensitive to the messages I send my own kids about college affordability and about the loftiness of their dreams.

What is your neighborhood school telling its students about their life trajectories? “First Generation” will motivate you to find out. 

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