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Breaking Away: Going-to-College Movies

Mary Burgan Borderstan Movie Fan

Mary Burgan is the Borderstan Movie Fan.

Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan’s column on movies runs every two weeks. Mary Burgan is a retired professor of English and association executive. Her previous reviews are listed at the end of this post.

Two of the summer’s best movies turn on the separation involved when a kid goes off to college. In both Toy Story 3 and The Kids Are All Right everything points to the moment when the car starts up, loaded with all the stuff that today’s young people believe they’ll need in their dorm rooms, to take them away from everything they once knew.

You might think that the goodbyes in the animated children’s film, Toy Story 3, would be less emotional than those in the family drama, Kids, but I found myself with very moist eyes when Andy leaves Buzz Lightyear, the Potato Heads, and Jessie the Cowgirl off with a little neighbor girl, has one last play session with her and them, and then totes Woody off to school with him as a mascot. We can never quite “put away the things of a child.”

The wind-down in The Kids Are All Right takes a bit longer than that in Toy Story 3 because that film is more about the parents left behind than about the kid who is leaving the nest. Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore), the lesbian co-parents of Joni (Mia Wasikowska), the sensitive daughter who is about to be off to college, “have issues” that have been brought to the fore by their children’s discovery of their sperm-donor, biological father.

The focus here is on the parents more than the children, for Joni, and eventually the son Laser (Josh Hutcherson), will soon be leaving the mothers to deal with one another.  A flaw in this film is its careless relegation of the “father,” played by Mark Ruffalo, to the darkness  beyond the plot. He deserves to something more than a scapegoat role, because the movie shows him as a relatively decent guy who has a lot to offer his two kids.

In both these films the future belongs to the kids. They get a lift as they turn to a new life in college. Jenny Millar—(Carey Mulligan) in last year’s excellent An Education—doesn’t quite get that lift because she trades the innocence of anticipation for premature experience that almost destroys her prospect of escape.

Nevertheless, Jenny is helped towards the first year at Oxford by a dedicated teacher who won’t give up on her. Indeed a number of going-away-to-school movies feature teachers as more significant than parents in the process of breaking away.

Going way back, I think of The Corn is Green (1945) from an autobiographical play by the Welsh writer Emlyn Williams. In that film, the dramatic emphasis is on the relationship between the departing student and his teacher. In this case, the teacher is Lily Crostobel Moffatt, played by Bette Davis with a brittleness that masks her tenderness for her gifted student.

And then Good Will Hunting (1997) picks up the poor but genius-boy character and assigns his rescue to a community college teacher named Sean McGuire, played for an Academy Award by Robin Williams. Under McGuire’s mentorship and that of an MIT math professor, Will Hunting (Matt Damon) finally manages to leave his problems in Boston so that he can drive out of his limited neighborhood to join his girlfriend at Stanford. It’s not clear that he will enroll there, but given the film’s bizarre notion of the ease of academic achievement, he’ll probably become a tenured full professor right off the bat.

A lot of going-to-college movies are versions of Animal House (1978) or rah-rah films about college sports. They give very shallow views of college life and its promise, especially in these days when many students must work part-time and others are “returning” adults. For a look at the way such students can change a teaching situation, see Educating Rita (1983). For some reason a number of critics panned this film, but I liked it mainly because it introduced Julie Wilson as Rita, playing against a boozy Michael Caine as the failed lecturer she helps to redeem.

Since the main theme of going away to college is hope, I’ll just conclude with one of my favorite college films here—Breaking Away (1979). I’ll confess that I have a personal reason for loving that movie: I taught at Indiana University when it was filmed there in 1978.

We all worried that Breaking Away would disgrace us, but it turned out to show us in a happy, hopeful light. And it also rendered the world of the have nots  from which college is supposed to deliver our kids. College doesn’t always do that, but often it does, and the dream is worth dreaming.

Other Reviews by The Borderstan Movie Fan

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- who has written 1898 posts on Borderstan.

Rhoades has lived in the Borderstan area for 17 years. When he’s not writing about the area he loves, he follows politics, tends his garden and spoils Lupe, the world’s cutest and smartest dog. Find him on Twitter @mattyrhoades; email him at matty[AT]borderstan.com.

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