Originally published in The Worcester Journal on June 7, 2016
As a film student who's also an English major and deeply narcissistic in all the usual ways, one of my biggest and most sincere questions coming out of my undergraduate education is: why are there not more movies centered on college-aged protagonists?
I realize this is basically asking "Why aren't there more stories about me?" but, seriously, there is no shortage of (wonderful, predictable, cheesy, reassuring, warm, fuzzy, upsetting, relatable) high school stories and, lately, just as many on that later-twenty-something part of life when you really should have your shit together but need all your adult friends and siblings to show you the light and guide you into a happy medium of staying true to yourself while also becoming a somewhat respectable member of society. That part I'm totally prepared for, thanks to movies like I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009), 27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher, 2008), Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013), and the more recent Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014) and Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015). Even some of the latest films with plots revolving entirely around their collegiate settings, like Liberal Arts (Josh Radnor, 2012) and Admission (Paul Weitz, 2013), tell stories from the perspective of the adults on campus who, of course, have some growing up of their own to do. Both of these coming-of-age variations dominate the realistic fiction segment of Hollywood's unrealistic vision of what goes down in modern America–which is why I'm somewhat baffled that the crucial, exploratory time between ages 19-22 is largely underrepresented in mainstream cinema.
Maybe it's because, to the young people who go to the movies but don't go to college, or to the adults who are now too far removed from the American education system to understand the nuances of the contemporary angst it brings, watching a bunch of privileged kids be confused and dramatic while walking around the most boring-looking set possible isn't a particularly alluring cinematic experience. (And honestly, I can get behind that on the level of the aesthetics alone.) It's common knowledge that universities keep students living in a bubble of safe spaces and like-minded folks for four years, a period which can be not only illuminating in many ways but also potentially damaging. Maybe the college age is often skipped over in film because, just as the bubble keeps us students largely oblivious to the way things work outside our ivory towers, it also keeps those outside the bubble at a distance, forcing them to squint and make their best guess as to how those inside interact with one another.
The best illustration of college life I've witnessed onscreen thus far is easily Noah Baumbach's Mistress America (2015), a delightful comedy on the nature of storytelling made exponentially funnier when you can understand with a visceral empathy the aggravation of sitting through a class where that one person cannot seem to help responding with completely unnecessary aggression to everything anyone says; or the agony of seeing that guy you like walking with another gal and consoling yourself by sitting alone in the campus bistro at night with a tray of forlorn fries (or pizzeritas, or late-night mac-and-cheese grilled cheese) in front of you to soak up your misery.
Though classics like Rudy (David Anspaugh, 1993), Legally Blonde (Robert Luketic, 2001), Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant 1997), and A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001) ought not to be forgotten here, it seems that the university narrative has shifted considerably in the last decade and, as amazing as those movies are, they're undeniably sensational, telling the most remarkable stories about the most unlikely heroes and touched up with that optimistic Hollywood gloss. Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012) is probably the best example of a recent movie that hits the right notes (sorry) as far as establishing a recognizable and even resonant, ordinary university setting, and then turning certain elements of that setting up to 100 for that dramatic, satirical effect, finishing off with a nice clean Disney Channel Original Movie feeling.
I find this apparent lack of unsensational college and/or typical college-age-centered stories in film noteworthy because (again, based on my own Googling and pragmatic conclusions) there very well may be no narrative more inherently dynamic, no life more determinedly dramatic and peppered with normal and bizarre supporting characters that also happens to be a microcosm of the capitalist, American-dream-seeking, Hollywood-ready system of elite education than that of the 19-22 year old college student. This may be partially because there is likely no other demographic more convinced that they are the star of their world's film than this college student, particularly now. (I'm not even going to begin getting into the Gen X versus Millennials versus Gen Z discussion, but I don't think I need to remind anyone how ardently the Baby Boomers have labelled us "the selfie generation" among a number of other equally patronizing and aggravating media-safe slurs highlighting our exponentially increasing youthful narcissism.) In a way, even the most ordinary college encounters are experienced with a heightened sense of importance–even the most average students are living the most sensational lives. Melodrama is the norm, and every ordinary moment simply builds on the comedy and tragedy of it all.
I'm also aware of the role privilege and choice play in this phenomenon–of course, not every high school graduate will go to college, and not every 19-22 year old will have graduated high school. In this light, I suppose it makes sense for filmmakers to focus on the more universal experiences of high school and what happens a decade later (according to The Atlantic, the number of high school graduates who then immediately enroll in college has been slowly dropping over the years, falling to 66% in 2013). Okay, so, sure, if you want to get technical about fair representation in the movies, then go ahead and skip that part of life when you decide whether or not to pursue higher education in search of financial success and personal fulfillment–but, I ask you, when has Hollywood ever cared about fair representation before? I’ll tell you when: never. This is certainly not meant to defend the decades on decades in which the film industry has relentlessly focused on white heteronormative narratives rather than including and normalizing those of the many (many) gay, lesbian, trans, genderqueer, black, Asian, southeast Asian, Hispanic, disabled, elderly, and otherwise Other lives that also comprise our nation’s best stories (if not our movies or politics), or that baby steps toward progress aren't being taken (I heard Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014) was good!), but simply to point out that even the most average college student's story is pretty much a pack of mini cupcake mix ready to be thrown into the Easy-Bake Oven of Hollywood's top-secret three-act formula. In fact, with the number of parallels between the systems of elite education and the film industry, I'm fairly shocked this demographic and their (our) stories haven't been seriously capitalized upon already.
But maybe it isn't as unforgivable as all that. Because I, like John Cusack's character in High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000), tend to take refuge in my pop culture obsessions to escape the anguish of modern life and romance, I often think of his character's essential line: What came first, the music or the misery? The same logic applies to movies–do we watch movies because we are miserable, or are we miserable because we keep watching movies? Hard to say, but I'm inclined to believe a lifetime of cinematic consumption must contribute in some significant way to a later life of seemingly unstoppable disappointment. When you grow up preparing for your time at Cape Elizabeth High School with Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004) and Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004) in mind, such disappointment is inevitable, as I'm sure it will be in a few years once I've been a lonely Type-A bridesmaid 27 times and do not, in fact, find the love of my life in a cute and snarky journalist who happens to write wedding announcements on the side.
Was it better, then, to go through these last four years with no real (or unreal) idea of what to expect? With no clue how to instigate a respectful yet casual conversation with professors? With no idea how on earth college students spend all their time in libraries while taking only four classes? Without knowing how many times I would change my mind about who I am and what to do, only to end up agreeing to disagree with me and my many selves? Maybe we should thank Hollywood for providing us with all the uncertainty and anxiety that makes college students such fascinating characters and potential protagonists, by virtue of denying us any other unrealistic expectations (on top of the ones we're already frantically trying to manage).
But this character and this narrative are remarkable, too, for the fact that this student may not always feel she is the star of her movie. College in America in 2016 is a magical place where one glorious moment might make you feel like The Chosen One and the next makes you wonder if this is what Luna Lovegood's life is like when she's not with Harry; if all the instants when the spotlight seemed to hit you were really just proving to all the real stars what a quirky supporting character you've been, and how your funny little side plot has really just functioned as a way to work some interesting details into the main storyline.
Maybe the real, uncut, unedited college student is simply too dynamic to work as an effective protagonist. Maybe things change altogether too often for a coherent narrative to be shaped around those four years where the plot points and characters and sets and music montages are so densely packed that each passing semester feels like a lifetime ago–and yet I can't help feeling like these are exactly the reasons why university students are such ideal subjects. Minor goals and motivations shift and turn until the greater desires reveal themselves under the rubble of whatever's leftover each time you change your mind. People who were once important move to the periphery, just as you move to the periphery of people you were once important to. Everyone changes as often as trends, and even if we wanted to truly move forward and step away from who we used to be and all the things that made us that way, we all still study in the same library, walk the same stairwells, use the same bathrooms, go to the same bars and check the same mailroom. The past variations of ourselves bounce around campus like ghosts in the subjective memories of all the people we scrutinized and who scrutinized us, who saw us change, who either respected us or didn't. Maybe real college in the movies wouldn't be so great after all–not like I would know or anything, but maybe the real story doesn't start until the ghosts are only in our heads and not physically surrounding us at every corner–and maybe it still won't be a real story yet, but it might be a better one, at least.
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