Written and Directed: John Singleton
Each time I watch Higher Learning it 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 white 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) is date-raped in her first week of college and 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. In the process Taryn falls in love with Kristin, and the young girl feels herself responding. 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.
I have a soft spot a mile wide for the talented Jennifer Connelly. Anyone who doubts her talent should check out Requiem for a Dream or Waking the Dead, not to mention her Oscar-winning performance in A Beautiful Mind. Casting her in this interesting role 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 them that the film most wants to expose, but it was nice to see the director going for just that little bit more.
The relationship between Kristin and Taryn is not sensationalised, but also doesn't back away from real intimacy when the story requires it. Taryn's interest is subtly conveyed right from the beginning, and Kristin's growing attraction comes on so gradually you can feel her being overwhelmed when it finally hits her. Until seeing this I 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 the character here.
What we get in Higher Learning is a good portrait of sexual confusion. One suspects that Kristin's bisexuality was 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 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 lesbianism in context with a volatile political environment. 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.
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) and the region 2 (UK) DVD contain the International uncensored version.