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Head of the Class: 10 Great College Movies

Written by on April 6, 2016 

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)

Mistress America

Twenty years after Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach returns to the turmoils of college life with Mistress America, a hopeful and inspired comedy co-written with his new creative partner, Greta Gerwig. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is having trouble fitting in with her new classmates, until she meets her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), an overly ambitious wannabe restaurateur in a financial dilemma. Tracy’s mother is set to wed Brooke’s father, and, after meeting, the pair make quick and effortless friends. Tracy, an aspiring writer, quickly takes on the role of the little sister to Brooke’s charmingly oblivious whirlwind, finding inspiration for her next story in her new friend. Like Brooke’s previous BFF who stole her idea of a t-shirt covered with skulls and flowers, Tracy wishes to appropriate some of her new friend’s essence. However, Brooke’s heart is so painfully wide open that Tracy’s fictionalized account threatens to destroy their friendship once it’s revealed. Though Brooke may not learn from her mistakes, as Tracy does, she never succumbs to them, as if a heedless sense of purpose protects her from the yawning abyss of reality. As Tracy says of her friend, “Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.”

School Daze (Spike Lee)

School Daze

Spike Lee‘s politically charged musical take on the college movie contains such a heavily stylized, theatrical feel that it takes a moment to adjust to its rhythms. The campus of Mission College is divided — some in protest of apartheid South Africa, while others pledge to dehumanizing fraternities, following their Dean’s orders, no matter how depraved. School Daze is vintage Lee, made the year before his arguable masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, gleefully dabbling in drastic and sudden tonal shifts from scene to scene and forcing the audience to remain nimbly on their toes. Wisely, Lee paints both sides as equally hypocritical and flawed, portraying these student-minded adults carelessly doing the wrong thing. It’s strikingly socially relevant to the politics of today, exploring issues of race from which most artists shy away. Like a pseudo-prequel, Lee’s film is unquestionably thematically connected to his aforementioned 1989 classic, as School Daze closes with the same two words upon which Do The Right Thing begins: “Wake up.”

The Social Network (David Fincher)

The Social Network

While higher learning can indeed prepare the young and inexperienced for the struggles of the real world, the environment of academia can also reinforce and even strengthen the worst, most corrosive aspects of people’s personalities. In David Fincher‘s The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg, a dangerously intelligent Harvard student, creates the blueprint for what will eventually become Facebook. Zuckerberg has already been dumped by his smart and beautiful girlfriend after a pointless argument about college final clubs, a high priority for the student until the wealthy Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Armie Hammer) offer him a job designing a website. The twins’ simple idea leads Zuckerberg to create his own site, The Facebook, which causes a massive lawsuit as Mark’s best friend and business partner, Edwardo (Andrew Garfield), slowly finds himself forcibly removed from the company he helped create. Zuckerberg seems to believe that his intelligence and creative abilities should forgive all of his sins. No matter how smart, rich, or successful you are, the world would prefer if you were merely a nice person.

Storytelling (Todd Solondz)


Two stories of lives touched by the pressures of college life play out independently of each other, terrible deeds taking place in banal settings while flawed people look for hope, love, and acceptance. Instead, they find pain, sorrow, and horror. In the first story, a Creative Writing major cheats on her boyfriend with her African-American professor, causing a controversy among her classmates. In the second story, a slacker high-school senior becomes the subject of an aimless documentary filmmaker as he’s forced by his parents to apply for college. The kid has no interest in school. He would rather eat magic mushrooms, listen to Elton John, and dream of being a TV talk show host like his hero, Conan O’Brien. This is a searing and unapologetic film, each and every scene seems designed to skewer a different, increasingly difficult and indigestible subject matter. It’s a shame that controversy initially surrounded Todd Solondz‘s film, involving a censored sex scene from the opening tale with a large red square covering the actors’ bodies. The film became notorious for a single scene, much of the media narrative following Solondz’s frustrated willingness to accept the censorship as a way of reminding the audience: “Hey, there’s something they’re not letting you see.” It’s too bad, as the film surrounding that sex scene may be the most challenging and morbidly entertaining of the boundary-pushing artist’s filmography.

Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson)

Wonder Boys

Grady, a pot-addled college literature professor (Michael Douglas), befriends a lonely, misguided student in Curtis Hanson‘s melancholy adaptation of Michael Chabon‘s beloved tale of eccentric writers and the readers who love them. Grady’s wife has just left him as he learns that his mistress, his boss’s wife, is pregnant. Meanwhile, Grady’s oddball editor is in town to check up on his new novel, the long-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed debut, The Arsonist’s Daughter. It’s been years in the writing, important enough to Grady to distract from his own hastily collapsing life. One of the most truthful and emotionally resonant moments comes when Grady visits the childhood home of his now-estranged wife with a troubled student, James (Tobey Maguire). Instead of his wife, Grady finds only her parents, who warmly welcome these two lost souls. Grady informs his soon-to-be-ex-father-in-law that he’s nearly completed the novel that’s torn attention away from his loving wife. The father-in-law sadly nods, understanding the problem his son-in-law cannot: “Ah, yes, your book. I hope it’s really good, Grady.”

Everybody Wants Some!! is now in limited release and soon expanding.

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