College Is Not a Playground

Course credits and exam scores take a backseat to self-fulfillment in At Middleton.

Anchor Bay Entertainment

At Middleton is a bittersweet romantic comedy set in an exotic locale—a small liberal arts college campus. Edith (Vera Farmiga) is taking her daughter Audrey (Taissa Farmiga) to see Middleton College; George (Andy Garcia) is doing the same with his son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco). Edith and George get separated from the tour, and end up discovering themselves and falling a little in love. As you do in college.

Part of the joke, or conceit, of the film is the way in which Middleton stands not only for every college, but for mid-life crisis, as Edith and George reveal how unhappy they are in their respective marriages while finding their inner adventurous college students. Middleton, and college in general, become in the film a kind of nostalgic playground for the middle-aged. George and Edith steal some bikes and go peddling off across campus. They take an acting class and reveal their true feelings. They find a piano and play Chopsticks together. They stumble into a projection booth and see bits of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. They smoke pot and reveal more of their true feelings. They join frolicking undergraduates bathing in a fountain. They take advantage the whole panorama of expensive amenities in pursuit of that most desirable consumable, gratuitous self-fulfillment.

There's something more than a little disturbing in the casual brutality with which the film makes college about the parents rather than the kids, following their story to the exclusion of their progeny. In one scene, George and Edith sit on the quad and make up life stories for the students walking by, including at least one girl who is openly weeping. Several times in their wanderings they see and stare at students making out or having sex. Campus life becomes a voyeuristic meta-film for forty-somethings.

Most unpleasantly, in order to spend more time together, they both lie, and then lie again, to Edith's daughter Audrey, sending her off on various goose-chases across campuses. Toward the end, she is reduced to tears, desperately trying to call her mother, who won't answer the cell-phone. Audrey's increasingly desperate anger as her mother jerks her around is quite understandable—yet it's portrayed as hysterical and excessive. How dare she try to have her college visit be part of her story, when the film clearly is about Edith? Even Audrey's professorial idol, Dr. Roland Emerson (Tom Skerritt) tells her to loosen up. Her certainty and academic focus on linguistics is presented as pathological. College should be a time to expand, not to narrow down, Emerson tells her. Edith and George have it right as they frolic and flounce away from their responsibilities, pretending that they're 18, that they're not married, and/or that they're married to each other. Conrad has the right idea, too, when he apprentices himself to the aging college DJ and uses his time on the mike to broadcast a seize-the day message to all the undergrads. Education isn't about learning linguistics. It's about learning to have fun, taking off that ridiculous bow tie and contemplating infidelity in a bell tower.

The more or less unspoken context here is class, of the economic variety. George is a cardiac surgeon; Edith sells "high-end" children's furniture. They're both solidly upper-middle affluent, as they need to be if their children are going to attend Middleton, which, it is mentioned, costs tens of thousands of dollars a year. Expanding your mind, whether by improv acting or pot, is both enabled by and underlines the state of one's bank account. If poor Audrey were actually poor, all her AP classes and all her work would be urgently needed money in the bank, hard-won steps on the way to a credential that could mean health care and food security not just for herself, but for her mother as well. Instead, her focus and commitment are seen as a lack of imagination. Here you are in this paradise of self-actualization and all you can think of is linguistics? What's wrong with you? Go leap into that fountain as into a spraying stream of greenbacks, already, and come forth transformed.

College in media is regularly portrayed as an island of self-exploration and opportunity, from the gross appetite of Animal House's frat scene to the brainy riches to more riches tale of The Social Network. In reality, the experience of college as playground is restricted. Fully 44 percent of those who attend post-secondary school go not to Middleton or the like, but to a community college. Those who do attend elite universities are shockingly wealthy; at Harvard, 45.6 percent of undergraduates come from families with income over $200,000, putting them in the top 3.8 percent of households in the U.S.

Toward the beginning of the film, Audrey and her mom are doing a crossword puzzle which asks for a synonym for "feckless." The word then comes up again and again, a jokey advanced vocab college term. It's a description of George and Edith, obviously, who are indulging in a flirtation that is a betrayal of their spouses and their children. But it's also a description of college itself, which is portrayed as an oasis of irresponsibility in which the well-to-do reproduce their own privileged fecklessness. Middleton is not about learning anything in particular. It is about learning about learning, which is to say that it is about learning that learning is less important than where your class is. The college experience is not in books, or lectures. Instead, it is a dream of freedom and possibility, for some.