Since #bamarush took over TikTok in the summer of 2021 with its choreographed dances and OOTDs, the University of Alabama’s Greek system has been the talk of the digital town. (And if all that sounded like a foreign language to you, ask the nearest Gen Z to explain it before reading on.) Some people celebrate it; some people ridicule it; others just can’t look away. The New York Times even published an article decoding the phenomenon.
As one woman posted after three days down the Bama rush TikTok hole, “I’ve never smoked crystal meth, but this is how I would imagine one would feel on a seventy-two-hour crystal meth binge.” The documentary, too, feels a bit like a delirious and glittery haze as it follows four potential new members (or PNMs) in the months before their fateful rounds to campus sororities. They meet with rush consultants (yes, that is a real career), make binders, prep resumes, take headshots, pick outfits, hone talking points, and open up about their insecurities and the people they hope to become in college.
It’s all too much, and yet, for all the blonde highlights and self-tanner filling each camera frame, Bama Rush portrays each character with considerable respect and empathy. It doesn’t make fun of them. Instead, it takes the viewer on the rollercoaster with them (in one scene quite literally, when a girl who decides to drop out of rush is shown giggling with her friends on an amusement park ride, finally at peace with her decision).
These girls want to fit in. They want to make friends. They want to figure out who they are. The documentary shines a light on all the good parts of the Greek system that they’re seeking (leadership, service, a sense of belonging) while also calling out the parts that desperately need to change: the prevalence of eating disorders and other rampant self-esteem issues that come with growing up in the TikTok generation; date rape drugs; sexual assault; racism. (Alabama sororities weren’t integrated, unfathomably, until 2013.) It also calls out the corruption of the Machine, the underground coalition of representatives from “top-tier” sorority and fraternity houses that allegedly controls all aspects of Bama student life and seeks to silence opposition.
Overall, the film is not so much a teen drama as it is a raw reckoning with the system—and the culture that set the system in motion and let it run unchecked for more than a century. Interestingly, the documentary’s director, Rachel Fleit, becomes a character herself as the story unfolds, and she perhaps sums it up best: “I think they believe that I’m trying to ruin their tradition,” Fleit says in the film, referring to the false internet rumors set loose during filming that the documentary was attempting to sabotage the Greek system. “And I think there are really good things about your traditions here, and I think there are really toxic things about your traditions here, and really confusing things about the traditions here. But I came into this, like, literally Roll Tide.”
Bama Rush is not for the faint of heart. Your eyes might roll, your jaw might drop. You’ll laugh, and sigh, and maybe even tear up a little at the tender and painful aspects of adolescence it uncovers. And you’ll realize that—whether we’re wearing letters or not—none of us are immune. In the end, aren’t we all just trying to fit in?
Stream Bama Rush on Max starting on May 23.