(An article originally written for The Oxford Student)
If the last few years’ flicks are to be believed, your university years will see you either –
(a) get blown up in an apocalypse,
(b) invent a website which will eventually make you a billionaire, or
(c) attempt to seduce your future husband wearing only underwear and a scholar’s gown.
Although (a) can hopefully be discounted, here in Oxford (b) and (c) are not too unlikely. They also describe what many recent indie films with a university theme have in common; universities are settings where protagonists meet, and often serve as the backdrop for a couple’s relationship or the place in which modern history is made.
Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of David Nicholls’ novel One Day follows Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) and Dex Mayhew (Jim Sturgess), who meet at Edinburgh University and remain continually caught somewhere between ‘just friends’ and ‘more than friends’. The film’s fragmentary structure (Emma and Dex’s lives are glimpsed each year on the fifteenth of July) means it soon departs from the university setting, although the leads themselves find it difficult to move on. Dex’s constant partying suggests university life is more desirable than the responsibilities of adulthood. Meanwhile, Emma’s stagnation in a barely hygienic faux-Mexican restaurant gloomily reaffirms the graduate’s fear of not being able to land a decent job.
Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy is thematically and stylistically similar; it too attempts realism in presenting characters’ university experiences and post-graduation struggles to find themselves, find jobs, and ultimately, to stay together. British Anna (Felicity Jones) and American Jacob (Anton Yelchin) meet and fall in love while studying in LA, but graduation brings the expiration of Anna’s visa, and the beginnings of turbulence within their relationship.
The improvised dialogue and handheld photography of Like Crazy may be a clichéd method of building realism, but it is largely an effective one. It’s the scripted moments which sometimes fail to convince; Anna’s pretentiously verbose presentation in the film’s opening stands out in stark contrast to the endearing ineloquence she later displays.
As the characters of One Day and Like Crazy lament their years at university – a time when loan repayments can be overlooked, laundry can be ignored for weeks, and as The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) notes, it’s perfectly acceptable to be drunk before 10PM on a Tuesday night – student life is idealised in juxtaposition with harsher real life.
Consistent with this idealisation of student life films such as Scherfig’s An Education and the 2006 big-screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys are preoccupied with documenting characters’ pursuit of higher education. In An Education Carey Mulligan gave her breakout performance as naive schoolgirl Jenny, a character based on real-life Oxford alumnus Lynn Barber. Jenny becomes entangled with a much older man whilst studying for her A-levels and aspiring to read English at Oxford. Coincidentally, Mulligan’s co-star Rosamund Pike is herself an Oxford graduate, although this is well hidden in her on-screen persona as the ditsy Helen. Although Jenny’s story is both sad and shocking, Oxford University is presented as an idyllic refuge to which she escapes after her ill-fated relationship with David (Peter Sarsgaard).
Great sets and props, plus Nick Hornby’s brilliant screenplay, bring 1960s England to authentic tangibility on screen. The high degree of realism is also perhaps due to the film’s basis in fact. This is also the case with David Fincher’s The Social Network, which relates the genesis of Facebook. It is rumoured that Harvard graduate and actress Natalie Portman, a student in Mark Zuckerberg’s time, was asked about campus life during pre-production. However, despite the observations of staples of student life – the dodgy costume themes, strange traditions, snobbery towards Boston University matching that sometimes aimed at Brookes – The Social Network stands out for its engaging narrative and Aaron Sorkin’s fast-paced dialogue.
Several stand-out sequences uncannily portray aspects of university experience; Mark Zuckerberg’s drunken creation of facemash.com is cut alongside a party at the exclusive Phoenix Club. In this exemplification of the diversity of student experience it’s easy to see why The Social Network was awarded an Oscar for editing.
Despite the idealism of many of the above films, Gregg Araki’s Kaboom shows us it’s not all bong hits and stunning architecture by telling a grimmer tale. However, the film maintains wry humour through to the apocalyptic end; it is a sci-fi which does not take itself too seriously. Although the title may suggest otherwise, Araki’s story is just as concerned with witty dialogue as it is with explosive special effects (those of the finale are less than impressive). Although dorm rooms and parties are once again meticulously realised, Kaboom falls into the trap that many university movies succumb too – the students never do any work!