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No one cares about all those AP courses you took: “How I Got Into College”

May 23, 2013

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Every year around this time millions of parents throughout the country live on tenterhooks as the future of their children is decided by various groups of strangers in darkened rooms that smell of cigarettes and sweat and barely-repressed hostility. These people are college-admissions officers and while you and/or your teenager live in a state of perpetual anxiety, they are busy sizing up your financial status and deciding whether or not your money will go far enough toward paying off their various debts to the finest brothels and cockfighting syndicates in Tijuana to make it worth their effort to let your kid into their school. And since that season is upon us, it’s a good time to review the little-seen, barely-known, utterly charming 1989 comedy How I Got Into College.

I had almost forgotten this movie existed, since it ran for only a few weeks at the tired, third-tier mall theater where I began my cinematic career. For a while I thought I may have simply imagined it during a feverish episode of malaria or something—which would be really weird, since I’ve never had malaria. But wouldn’t it be cool to have it? Malaria always struck me as the most romantic of the tropical diseases. Like, it’d just be cool to be able to casually drop into conversation, “Well, I was struggling with one of my periodic bouts of malaria. Picked it up in ruddy Siam, I did.” Seems very Kipling-esque.

Yeah, this is more or less what I suspected.

Yeah, this is more or less what I suspected.

Anyway, HIGIC mostly follows the travails of Marlon Browne, (Corey Parker) a pleasant, but uninspired high school senior, who, as the film begins, mainly avoids any decisions about college by immersing himself in Silver Surfer comic books and wistfully pining for overachieving, class president, cheerleader Jessica Kailo (Lara Flynn Boyle, before she grew up to become a stick-insect). One day, Marlon makes his decision: he’ll apply to Ramsey College—the same place Jessica has her heart set upon—so that he can one day win her heart. It’s a stupid idea, he knows, but what the hell? It’s not like he has any better ones.

Marlon has a few challenges, however. First off, he’s a bit of an underachiever, so he doesn’t have great grades. Also, he was destroyed on the SAT (as represented by two fully realized guys—A and B—trapped in the story problems on the math portion who implore him to try harder before their trains collide or they’re eaten by sharks or whatever). So he embarks on a bunch of fairly-absurd, but utterly convincing endeavors to shore up his chances of acceptance. He patronizes a patently-shady college-acceptance clinic run—hilariously—by a couple of slickly obvious hucksters (Nora Dunn and…sniff…Phil Hartman). At their insistence he tries to bulk up his transcripts with extracurriculars like babysitting (he’s held hostage in a preschool prison break) and wrestling (he’s beaten to a pulp).

Be warned, there is A LOT of plaid in this movie.

Be warned, there is A LOT of plaid in this movie.

At the same time, Jessica is facing her own set of challenges. Her parents want her to go to Michigan State (their alma matter), and once she visits Ramsey for an interview, she realizes that her achievements aren’t actually that special. There is (gasp) a country full of class presidents, cheerleading captains, yearbook editors angling for a spot at that school. After her interview goes bad (it involves a stuffed pig and her exposing herself) she’s thrown into a spiral of despair. Which ends after she begins to notice Marlon noticing her.

In a parallel plot line that occasionally intersects with Marlon and Jessica’s story, a couple of romantically-involved admissions counselors, Kip and Nina (Anthony Edwards, reminding why he’s the nicest presence onscreen ever, and Finn Carter sporting an adorable bob) struggle to champion students who are more than just the sum of their SAT scores against an increasingly-robotic admissions staff. The staff includes a perfectly oily Charles Rocket (RIP) as a smug suck-up and an imperious Philip Baker Hall (who, as near as I can tell, looks pretty much the same today as he did then).

Bob's are hawt...

Bob’s are hawt…

So, yeah, it’s pretty standard stuff, but what makes HIGIC so good is how well the story is told. Director Savage Steve Holland brings the same sweet, oddness to this movie as he did to Better off Dead and One Crazy Summer. John Hughes is regularly cited as the best observer of ‘80s high school life, but Holland delights in a level of surrealism which perfectly realizes the confusion of teenagers teetering on the brink of adulthood.

The movie’s also funny as hell, with Holland and writer Terrell Seltzer stuffing gags into every nook and cranny—whether they make sense or not. The laconic admissions secretary admonishes Marlon, “You can’t reschedule the interview, pup…pup…puppy!” and then promptly makes googly eyes at the framed picture of her dog. At a recruitment party, football coach Brian Doyle Murray wears a party hat over his face like a beak and pecks at one of the recruits. What do any of these things have to do with the story? Nothing, but they’re hilarious in their weirdness and help build this world.

I have no idea.

I have no idea.

Eventually, everything turns out okay—did you expect anything else—but the movie makes it’s point: every kid applying to college is a human being and more than the sum of their grades, scores, and activities.

Other notes:

* I really love Finn Carter’s bob. I know I mentioned it already, but, well, it’s just so darn cute.

Let's look at the bob again...

Let’s look at the bob again…

* Diane Franklin plays Marlon’s stepmom, and, sweet crap, if there is a bigger Oedipal nightmare for a teenager than having the unbearably-cute girl from Better Off Dead as a mom, I can’t imagine what it would be.

"Just call me mom..." Aaaaagh!

“Just call me mom…” Aaaaagh!

* Phil Hartman…(sigh)…it’s so damn unfair.

* People really loved patterns in the late-‘80s. Especially plaids. Holy shit, did we love plaids back then.

Even Lara is getting freaked out by all the plaid.

Even Lara is getting freaked out by all the plaid.

* The running gag with the A and B guys plays off in a hilariously magical-realist way.

* Richard Jenkins is in this. Extra awesome points.

It’s really too bad that How I Got Into College is so obscure. It should be a cult classic with Holland’s other films. And to all you kids sweating out your college decisions: don’t worry about it. They’re all more or less the same. If you actually buy that bill of goods about college life being the best years of your life, then your life will suck. There’s a lot more life that comes after it (no really, you can prove this with math). It’s what happens after college that matters. That’s where the real adventure begins.

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