Is college really worth attending anymore, in these times when even an advanced degree no longer guarantees one the ability to earn a living, and student loan debt can take decades to repay? That’s a burning question on the minds of many soon-to-graduate high schoolers. But if you ask their parents the same question – and those parents are college graduates themselves – the answer that you’ll get sometimes has less to do with the potential for boomerang-immune employability than with the many other types of education that we acquired during our uni years, often outside the classroom.
The experience of leaving the familiar nest of home, without the immediate pressure to get a full-time job, opens the mind to new experiences and perspectives. “Do it now,” we tell our kids, “while you’re still young.”
Those differing viewpoints from either side of the generation gap provide the main themes behind Adam Rodgers’ debut feature Middleton. It’s being screened as part of the Woodstock Film Festival this Saturday at the Woodstock Playhouse and this Sunday at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, but as of presstime, tickets sales for both shows were already listed as “standby only.” Never mind; this one will be coming to a theatre near you for sure, and it’ll be worth the wait. [For more information on the Woodstock Film Festival, read the previews from our last edition of Almanac at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.]
It’s campus tour time at Middleton College (enticingly portrayed by Gonzaga and Washington State Universities). Hard-driven Audrey (Taissa Farmiga) is positive that this is the place that she wants to be, based entirely on her hero worship of an eminent Linguistics professor (Tom Skerritt) on staff there. Her impulsive mother Edith (21-years-older sister Vera Farmiga) is already brittle with anticipation of empty-nest syndrome and seems terrified of Audrey’s singlemindedness.
Meanwhile, foot-dragging Conrad has no idea where he wants to go to school or what he wants to do with his life, beyond ripping off the necktie that his buttoned-up cardiac surgeon father George (Andy García) has insisted that he wear for the tour. Conrad could fairly be described as “feckless” – and the progressively more egregious misapplication of that highfalutin’ adjective is one of this smartly written movie’s running jokes.
The two single-for-a-day parents and their ill-assorted offspring meet badly over a disputed parking space. They then proceed to grate on one another further on one of those organized walking tours of campus highlights where some poor student docent has to earn his or her work/study pay by acting perky whilst walking backwards. At first the story appears to be about the two high school seniors and their expectations (or lack thereof) – and that theme indeed will come into it before the movie is through – but the narrative goes off on a wide detour as Edith and George begin to find one another perversely intriguing and decide to play hooky from their kids for a few hours.
The uptight-guy-falls-for-free-spirited-gal formula is one that has been played out in literature and cinema a gazillion times, so it takes a bit more depth of character or plot to make it interesting. In Middleton, the characters and dialogue are well-conceived enough (by Rodgers and Glenn German) and the actors deft enough that we can forget for a while what familiar ground we’re recrossing.
As rendered by Ulster County’s own Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, Down to the Bone, Higher Ground), Edith is by no means your clichéd living-for-the-moment, flaky chick with a heart of gold so beloved by Hollywood. Her volatility can manifest as openhearted charm at times, but there’s a lot of pain and free-floating hostility simmering there as well. A force of nature long bottled up in a loveless marriage and disappointing career, Edith doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and in her sense of entitlement to tell jerky people off lie the seeds for a self-absorbed daughter who feels entitled to special treatment and rule-bending from her chosen mentor. Farmiga is wonderful in the role, all raw edges but still game for anything.
The big surprise here, though, is the comedic flair exhibited by Andy García in the role of the stiff who gets blown off-course for a day by Hurricane Edith. In the past, García has portrayed Federico García Lorca and Amedeo Modigliani; but mostly we tend to think of him as he is so often typecast: playing either a cop or a crook. As George in Middleton he gets to display a hitherto-unsuspected ability to execute a brilliant range of silly walks and truly awkward dance moves as Edith drags him across the campus – including up to a belltower where he is forced to confront his fear of heights.
Facing fears and getting honest about how unfulfilled they feel in mid-life: Those are the epiphanies that only a return to the Neverland of a college campus can evoke anymore from these two flawed, decent, believable characters. There are moments of darkness in Middleton – especially when George and Edith blunder into an acting class in progress and get drawn into some unintended psychodrama – and there’s no pasted-on happy ending. But wry comedy mainly rules the day, and by the end all four main characters have learned an important thing or two about themselves. And that’s what going to college is really all about, isn’t it?
Woodstock Film Festival, Wednesday-Sunday, October 2-6, $5-$75, various venues in Woodstock, Kingston, Rhinebeck, Rosendale & Saugerties, WFF Box Office, 13 Rock City Road, Woodstock; (845) 810-0131, ulsterpub.staging.wpenginefilmfestival.com.