higher learning

1995

Written and Directed by: John Singleton

I've seen Higher Learning many times and each time I watch it the film manages to surprise me. I still enjoy it, even after writing essays on it, but this review has been the most difficult I have ever had to write. The more you know about a movie, the more layers you've seen and discussed and analysed, the more difficult it becomes to distill that knowledge into one opinion.

Actually, that's a good place to start. Knowledge. The tagline for the film says "Unlearn", and that is an excellent explanation of the main theme of the film. How difficult is it to unlearn all we have been taught in our lives when faced with situations that fall outside our frame of reference? How do we cope with situations we've never been taught to deal with, or worse, we've been taught to fear or hate?

Those are the questions facing our three main characters, Kristin, Malik and Remy. The three have all been brought up in vastly different social environments: Kristin is the wet-behind-the-ears girl from Orange County, Malik is the black man with an attitude from the 'hood, and Remy is the redneck from Iowa. The melting pot John Singleton throws them into is Columbus University, a fictional college where everything seems to be divided along racial or economic lines. Throw all the different races, ages, genders, sexualities and religions into the mix and you've got a true recipe for conflict, and inevitably, tragedy.

Kristin (Kristy Swanson), who is date-raped in her first week of college, turns to the solace of the campus women's group, run by Taryn (Jennifer Connelly). The two become friends, and Taryn helps Kristin through the ordeal of accepting and moving on from her rape ordeal. In the process Taryn falls in love with Kristin, and the young girl feels herself responding, first out of curiousity, then out of real feeling. However, she's also attracted to the sensitive Wayne, so much so that she decides to sleep with him. She also decides to sleep with Taryn.

It is no secret that I have a soft spot a mile wide for the talented Jennifer Connelly. Anyone who doubts that she can be more than window dressing should check out Requiem for a Dream or Waking the Dead, two of the most haunting films of 2000, not to mention her Oscar-winning performance in A Beautiful Mind. Casting her in this small but interesting role back in 1995 was inspired, particularly because her physical appearance neatly sidesteps many of the stereotypes the character is otherwise overflowing with. Higher Learning thrives on stereotypes, as it is the evils of stereotyping people that the film most wants to expose, but it was nice to see the director going for just that little bit more.

The relationship with Kristin and Taryn is handled sensitively, not sensationalised, but also not backing away from real intimacy when the story requires it. Taryn's interest is subtly conveyed right from the beginning, and Kristin's growing attraction to her friend comes on so gradually you can feel her almost being overwhelmed by the realisation when it finally hits her. Until seeing this movie I actually wouldn't have credited Kristy Swanson with much sensitivity as an actress (she was the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but she manages to convey the nuances of her character admirably.

What we get in Higher Learning is a good portrait of sexual confusion. One suspects that Kristin's bisexual tendencies were always there, but the rape forces her to re-evaluate her personal prejudices and open her eyes to new possibilities. It is the people from what she formerly considered her "world" who ultimately turn against her, and the people from worlds she never even considered before who come to her rescue.

Perhaps even in spite of Taryn - who is quite isolated and angry as a result of her politics - Kristin learns to be positive and to want to change the prejudices and hate she sees around her. She could easily have become a victim of hatred, but she resists. Even though her efforts to bring everyone together are torn apart by tragedy, her actions are the single brightest glimmer of hope this film offers us in an otherwise bleak picture of our society.

Higher Learning gives us a chance to see a lesbian relationship in context with a volotile political environment. Kristin's relationship with Taryn is mostly an aside to the main plot, but we see its effects on the way Kristin grows and deals with the world. Of course, by sleeping with two people at once Kristin reinforces yet another stereotype - the promiscuous bisexual - but after a while you stop minding that all the characters eventually turn out the way you think they will, because that seems to be the whole point.

The surprise of Higher Learning is often that there are no surprises. We need to change our attitudes and broaden our frames of reference to make anything new happen, otherwise it is just going to be a case of "same shit, different day", all over the world, all the time. So John Singleton challenges us to "question the knowledge" we have of ourselves and each other, especially if we fall into one of the groups he identifies.

Postscript: My brief here on this site means I am concentrating on the lesbian aspects of all the films I review. For a more rounded and complete overview of this film I recommend Roger Ebert's column. He and I may differ in some of our views but he makes some valid points, especially about role models and how John Singleton uses them in this film.

DVD information: I bought this film initially from the USA on DVD and was shocked to see an important slice of the lesbian sex scene removed. I almost sent the DVD back for a refund, until I discovered that was the way the film was released in the USA. The region 4 (Australia) DVD and the region 2 (UK) DVD contain the International uncensored version, and 30 seconds of film has never been more worth the effort, trust me.

Got a comment? Write to me at nancyamazon@gmail.com