The best and worst university films
"Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising." (Screenshot)
Midterm season is here again, and with Reading Week sandwiched right in the middle of things, there’s plenty to be done, but hopefully a fair bit of relaxation is ahead, too. And what better way to relax than with a classic college movie?
Growing up, most college films depicted university as a place to party, meet a love interest, or have a eureka moment about your life, while studying somehow got left out of the equation.
As I finish up my degree in real life, without the film crew and Hollywood budget, it’s become even clearer just how far-fetched the films we all loved as teenagers really were. But, in the spirit of nostalgia, I’ve gathered a few of the most popular university films below, ranging in my opinion from best to worst and, of course, consider how accurately they depict post-secondary life.
Now, before I weigh in, I should say that something about sorority and/or fraternity movies always makes me cringe. I suppose it’s the general distance between the on-screen depiction of university and what my actual university experience has been like. (Note: I did not participate in the Greek system.) Yes, there are plenty of opportunities to party in post-secondary but, for a lot of us, we choose to spend our time differently and usually a lot of that time involves working, reading, and studying.
What I like about the sequel to Neighbors is that it actively interrogates many of the problems with the Greek system but still manages to have fun and keep the audience laughing. I only watched this movie recently because I’ll admit: I enjoyed the first film, but I didn’t expect much from the second. The trailer was dominated by images of scantily clad young women alongside a buff Zac Efron; it didn’t feel very inspired. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the follow-up’s feminist tone, established through the premise of a group of first-year girls starting their own sorority that allows them to party (the movie stresses the double standard wherein fraternities can party in their houses but sororities cannot).
The film hits a charming feminist-101 chord packed with girl power and some pretty decent jokes, too. Of course, some elements of their delivery are questionable and they leave out everything academia related, which is no surprise. Still, Sorority Rising interrogates gender roles, intergenerational conflict and sexism, offering a progressive take on the frat-boy blockbuster by bringing comedy and feminism together to prove once again just how wonderfully they mingle. The fact that there are almost no other mainstream college comedies like this one (but scores of sexist frat-boy films that objectify women and young girls) should be enough to get this movie on your list.
Okay, I’ll admit it now: I participated in and helped to run a musical theatre troupe for most of my university experience. Yes, I love musicals, and yes, I love girl power, celebrating diversity, and singing about it. This film has all of the above so, of course, it’s going to make my list. Of the many things it gets right, Pitch Perfect effectively captures the overwhelming opportunities of university, the often challenging process of figuring out where you belong within that landscape, and the incredible joy of finding your niche.
Along with the other films on this short list, Pitch Perfect isn’t without its problems, but it does pass the Bechdel test (so does Sorority Rising) and, overall, offers an enjoyable and memorable movie experience. While it completely leaves out the academic side of university, the film manages to do a great job demonstrating the social side of post-secondary for those of us who didn’t spend it blacked out in a frat house.
This is definitely not one of my favourite films — and, in the tradition of college movies, it’s full of problematic moments — but it makes the list for one reason: its unique premise serves to accurately capture the naive, yet hopeful, outlook with which many young people enter university.
Justin Long, who plays the lead, was somewhat of an anti-jock poster boy and certainly a teen-flick regular when Accepted was released. In the film, he doesn’t make it into university and decides to create his own post-secondary institution of outcasts instead, complete with courses like “Doing Nothing” and “How to Blow Stuff Up With Your Mind.” Absurd? Without a doubt. Naturally, the whole idea backfires but there are a few laughs along the way and the general theme of acceptance, pursuing what you love and being yourself has made it a rather popular film within the genre.
As I said, Accepted doesn’t do an extraordinary job with these themes but it tries. As far as college films go, this one seems to cover all the bases in that if you’ve seen it, you’ve probably seen them all. The movie’s one advantage might be that it’s not the worst.
Speaking of the worst, I’m including this one last because it should certainly be considered to win that title. Old School effectively stands in for the shortcomings of the genre and its tendency for raunchy plot points that hinge on sexism, ageism and all-around misogyny. Did I mention how gross it is seeing middle-aged men, complete with beer bellies and partially bald heads, sauntering around and sleeping with underage girls? Gross then, still gross now.
Why, oh why Hollywood are you still doing this? One thing I appreciated about Neighbors 2 was that Zac Efron might act as a mentor to the freshman sorority girls but the filmmakers make a huge effort to point out that age difference and critique it as inappropriate, setting up boundaries and the limitations of Efron (mid-20s) seeing eye-to-eye with the under-20s. Fetishizing underage girls is not cool but while Neighbors 2 critiques that, Old School seems to revel in it.
There are oodles of middle-aged students out there and I mean no offence in that regard. The thing is, the leads of Old School are all middle-aged white men living it up fraternity-style and they aren’t even going back to school. These aren’t students, just grown men, with wives and children whom we meet at the start of the film, posing as college students to rent a house on a university campus and hook up with young girls. The film doesn’t hide that, either, which leaves the whole thing feeling a lot like a reclaim-your-youth singles event for men who never actually went to college.
This movie is desperately trying to parody the classic National Lampoon’s Animal House but it fails. Instead, we get a ton of icky sexism and a major lack of laughs. It’s American Pie without the charm, wit and characterization, so I’d say you’re better off checking out that series instead.