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November 15, 2016

I first heard the idea expressed with grains of rice on a chessboard, but this version works just as well: which would you rather have? a million dollar lump-sum payout? or a cent one day, followed by two the next, four the next, and so on doubling every day for a month? I can hear all my math education friends twittering with excitement as Cents explores how this prospect plays out.

Twelve-year-old Sammy Baca (Julia Flores) seems like she’s heard this one before. She’s whip-smart, though she doesn’t like to call attention to the fact in public. She leads her middle school’s math team but insists her teacher, Ms. Dyer (Esodie Geiger) keep her name out of the morning announcements after they win each meet. In exchange, Ms. Dyer gives her calculus lessons when nobody else is looking.

Sammy fancies herself an entrepreneur, or so she protests when she gets detention for selling gum at her middle school. She’s headstrong, which she gets from her mother (Monique Candelaria), currently a nurse practitioner but doggedly applying to medical school. Her principal (Lora Martinez-Cunningham) assigns her the busy work of rolling all the coins from the school’s “penny drive” to raise money for girls’ schools in Afghanistan. But when the count on the morning announcements doesn’t line up with the mount she rolled, she sees another angle.

Katie (Lillie Kolich), Sammy’s closest friend before a falling-out, has been skimming off the fundraising effort. But rather than rat her out, Sammy gets an idea. What if they could bring in so many cents that nobody would notice if literally hundreds of dollars went missing? They convince Hannah (Jy Prishkulnik), who started the drive, and the follower Emily (Claire Mackenzie Carter) to restructure their efforts.

On the first day, one person agrees to donate a cent every day of the month. They also agree to recruit a new donor every day, who will also donate a cent every day until the end of the month, and recruit their own downstream donors. It seems small, but it adds up quickly, as Ms. Dyer explains about a week into the effort.

So quickly, in fact that there’s no way for it not to run aground. And as it spirals out of control, it opens up mean-girl-style infighting and dirty tricks among the four girls. Hannah is jealous of the attention Sammy and Katie are getting; Sammy worries that Katie is about to blow the whistle; Emily feels her social circle disintegrating around her.

Admittedly, the unraveling threads are a bit hard to follow. Even if the plotlines are canned, they spill out over each other haphazardly, and it’s easy to lose track of exactly what’s going on under the surface in a given scene. Then again, that seems true about the social dynamics of middle school girls as well. The script might just be a victim of its own realism.

Even so, it’s buoyed by a performances from Flores and Candelaria, offering perspectives that don’t often make it to movie screens, and a hook that warms an old math nerd’s heart.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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