Freshers week is upon us. On hundreds of campuses across the world, students are beginning to fill the corridors of uni halls, anticipating wild parties and wondering if they’ve chosen the right subject…
But thinking about university can be pretty nerve-wracking – there’s a whole lot of what-ifs that can keep you up at night.
If you are one of the many anxious undergrads-to-be, we can guarantee that it’s not that scary. In fact, it’s genuinely fun. Even if you’re not into partying, it’s still the perfect opportunity to be pretentious about whatever it is you’re specialising in and become one of those “erm, actually…” people.
But before all of that, take a look at our guide on the best films about going to university, in which directors bring these formative years to the silver screen in all of their messy glory.
The Dreamers (2003)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers is set against the turbulent political landscape of 1968 Paris, which has been overtaken by student riots. Amongst the chaos, American exchange student Matthew (Michael Pitt) strikes up a friendship with French twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel). The three instantly bond over their shared love for cinema, but they get even closer when Matthew moves in with the siblings while their parents are away. Let’s just say they become entangled in an, er, unorthodox (read: incestuous) relationship.
The Dreamers is an example of the unexpected scenarios we find ourselves in at university. You might become radicalised, acting out against authority, or you may find yourself studying abroad, embracing new cultures. And while the whole incest throuple thing is probably off the cards, you can probably also expect to experience a sexual awakening one late night on campus.
The Souvenir (2019)
Having swept up awards at multiple film festivals across the globe, Joanna Hogg’s 2019 feature, The Souvenir, quickly became a cinephile favourite.
Starring Tilda Swinton and her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, the film follows Julie (baby Swinton), a young film student living in London. Living in a Knightsbridge flat with another student and his disruptive girlfriend, Julie is going through the typical student experience, struggling to find direction in her life, with an annoying flatmate who looms in the background.
Things change when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a man who works at the foreign office and eventually replaces Julie’s flatmate. Their blooming romance goes south, however, when it becomes apparent that Anthony is hiding who he really is.
It’s a story that represents the experiences of young students everywhere, from the way it explores Julie’s relationship with her film studies to the rollercoaster of emotions she experiences outside school hours. And if you want more, The Souvenir: Part II takes a closer look at Julie’s studies, where we see her working on her graduation film in the aftermath of her romance with Anthony.
Legally Blonde (2001)
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is the embodiment of a so-called bimbo: she’s blonde, loves the colour pink, is the president of her sorority and is obsessed with her boyfriend, Warner (Matthew Davis).
But she proves that she’s more than the stereotypes when Warner dumps her, hoping to find a more intelligent partner when he packs up to head to Harvard Law school. Devastated but determined to get her beau back, Elle does the unimaginable and secures a spot at the prestigious institution.
And it turns out that she has more legal savvy than she would’ve ever hoped, as she fights against everyday workplace misogyny while getting over Warner and discovering a passion for law.
While packaged as a fun, not-too-deep chick-flick, Legally Blonde tells the tale of many young women who are marginalised and not taken seriously in education. It’s also a reminder that women can be clever and still be into makeup, fashion and everything else that’s seen as feminine and anti-intellectual. Stomp through the library in your high heels, girlies.
School Daze (1988)
Spike Lee’s second feature film School Daze is a musical comedy that takes place in the fictional Mission College, Atlanta, a Black university. With the events of the film spread across homecoming weekend, the film takes a deep dive into the experiences of Black college students and is unapologetic in its rejection to making the film relatable for other demographics.
The film creates a dichotomy between the politically conscious student, Dap (Laurence Fisher) and Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), the head of the Gammas sorority. We witness Dap organise anti-apartheid demonstrations on campus grounds, while Julian is more interested in maintaining a social hierarchy, bullying those he sees as below him.
Dap and Julian are not the only two characters in the film that represent the opposite ends of a spectrum. School Daze also delves into the different experiences of Black men and women, colourism and discourse on hair texture and beauty standards.
At a time when it can feel like education isn’t accessible for everyone, it’s important to look back on films like this that explore the experiences of marginalised communities.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Good Will Hunting follows the titular character, Will Hunting (Matt Damon) and his experiences as a caretaker working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the traumas of being abused as a child and the hardships of being a working-class young man in America hold him back.
Will spends most of his time out of work with best-friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck), as the two get in and out of trouble with the law. But there’s more to Will – within him hides a genius-level IQ and passion for mathematics.
When Will gets arrested for attacking a cop, the professor who spots his mathematical brilliance bails him out on the condition that he will attend therapy to turn his life around. Reluctantly, Will agrees and he meets a therapist (Robin Williams) who will soon change his life.
The Academy Award-winning feature is an unforgettable story about education, class inequality, friendship and love. It’s a classic for a reason.
The Social Network (2010)
From being the go-to platform for reuniting long-lost friends to heralding the era of the metaverse, Facebook has maintained its hold on social media and popular culture for almost two decades. Ever wondered how Mark Zuckerberg made it all happen? David Fincher’s 2010 epic, The Social Network, does all of the work for us.
We meet a young Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) studying at Harvard in 2013, where he creates a site where users can rate the looks of the girls on campus. When the website becomes a big hit and attracts users from other universities, Zuckerberg is approached by the wealthy Winklevoss twins (both played by – whisper it – Armie Hammer). They want him to do what he does best and make another social networking site – this time, exclusively for Harvard students.
Adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, Fincher tells the story of a culture-defining website through flashbacks. Going from legal depositions to the early days of Facebook, the film tells a tense story not only about Facebook but friendship, loyalty, ambition and the crossroads young people find themselves in while studying.