Universities in film: A curiously large gap in the market


I love watching films because I crave the feeling of being completely absorbed into a piece of media to the point where I cannot draw my eyes away. Recently, I downloaded Letterboxd and it would not be an exaggeration to say that I am obsessed to the point of somehow believing that it would be possible for me to consume an entire media before going back to university in October. However, during this era of movie watching I have observed (or not observed) a strikingly large absence of university students on screen. That is to say that I find that barely any films focus on university life.

When I think about academic institutions on the big screen, the first place I think of is high school. There are countless examples of films set in school including recent releases like Bottoms and The Holdovers. Now, not all of these films are perfect and many are criticised for reasons such as having adults play the role of teenagers or having scripts written by those out of touch with the student experience. If so many of these criticisms come from the idea that there are too many adults involved in the creation of the coming-of-age genre, would it not make sense to focus on other, more adult student settings such as university?

It is not untrue that there are no films about life in your early twenties. Bridget Jones’s Diary accurately deals with the awkward nature of finding love and Frances Ha centres around friendship and living alone after college. In fact, Frances Ha and Ladybird are often seen to be semi-biographic portrayals of Director Greta Gerwig’s life and yet if these were chronological there would be a large gap in the middle:  her time at university.

When thinking about why there might be an absence of university representation in cinema I can only speculate. Is it that the university experience is a modern rite of passage that many people in older generations didn’t experience? Is it that the university experience is much less singular than that of high school and therefore hard to contain within the space of a film? Is it that for many students at university, the centre point of their life is not the work they are doing?

In my opinion, none of these reasons fully justify why we haven’t seen many adequate portrayals of university. With most young adults these days finding themselves pushed towards getting a degree, it feels like the most underexposed setting and space for countless different narratives. One key aspect of the university experience which makes it such an exciting space for a film is the fact that it is seen culturally as a place of experimentation: for many it is the first time living away from their parents, finding themselves in a relationship or experimenting with substances like alcohol.

 The films that do exist about university life are wildly popular and have helped to create a very ‘American Dream’ feel to the campus setting. ‘Pitch Perfect’ for example, exemplifies the theme of experimentation given that the plot revolves around the protagonist joining a university society and finding new friendships and love. Some films try to subvert this theme such as ‘Monsters University’ and ‘Dear White People’. ‘Monsters University’ has the message that it is okay to fail and that everyone succeeds in different ways. As well as this, ‘Dear White People’ shows the ways that African American university students experience life on campus differently from their white classmates. However, both films do still glorify aspects of the university experience such as the frat party culture that exists at American universities.

In contrast, the British university experience is so absent from films that most foreigners wouldn’t be able to tell you one institution outside of Oxbridge. ‘Saltburn’ is a film that is in part set at Oxford and has brought the university experience in the UK into the mainstream recently. In many ways, the film does resemble student life due to the fact it has the theme of class at its core and it shows the way that working class students oftentimes feel left out. However, there is still a ways to go before we see a fully accurate depiction of our time at university. On one hand, only a third of the movie is set on campus and on the other hand, Oxford and Cambridge are seen as different to other British campuses. Even when talking to my friends at these unis I feel a disconnect in the way that they discuss the social element of university and the fact that they do not experience flat share culture.

If filmmakers want to innovate in the following years, there is a clear market to focus on. The opportunities for films set on a university campus are endless given the vast and completely varied experience that all students have. Yet at the same time, there are enough shared experiences among us that make the setting relatable. As a teenager, I would have given anything to have a film to watch about university to gauge what it would be like and now I would give even more to see my experience of university represented on screen.




 featured image by Tima Miroshnichenko on pexels

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