Undergraduate students is an introspective slice-of-life film centered on a group of friends who are nearing the end of their university studies. They face the rite of passage of graduation and a transition into adulthood as they leave their party and study life to head into the world of careers and the full challenges of adulthood.
Early on, we meet Chloé (Chloe Skoczen) and Jaimie (Trace Guzmán), a couple who have been dating since college. However, he stays behind as she looks forward to medical school in Manhattan. Assuming their romance continues, he focuses on mapping out the structure of their next long-distance relationship. At the same time, she seems disinterested instead of looking forward to her career in medicine.
The theme explores the differences in how men and women view a single moment through the stories of these friends and couples. Men see college as a goal achieved at the end of a business and seek to settle into a relationship and a domestic life. But, on the other hand, women see in this time of transition a springboard to the different possibilities of life to come, the beginning of new adventures.
Rites of passage, of course, include parties and gatherings. The boys go off for a rowdy shack weekend, while the ladies celebrate with a birthday party and dance in a club. During these last days of the school year, relational energies come and go. New romances are sparked while old ones die. The realities of the changing times hit hard, shattering the denial they all indulged in during exams and the flurry of activity to wrap up college. Drew (Elijah McNally) and his longtime pal CJ (Xavier Goodman) put the finishing touches on their popular college radio show and suddenly realize it’s over. The emotions they go through range from excitement for new lives to sadness at leaving friends and college places behind. As young adults, this could be the most momentous moment of change for them yet.
“…New romances are sparkedwhile the old ones die…”
Wyatt’s (Dillon Orth) initial exuberance at the new possibilities quickly turns to rage as he realizes what he’s leaving behind (or, more accurately, what’s leaving him behind). His regret mostly comes in the form of his ex-girlfriend Carly (Lizzy Gesensway), whom he visits drunk and tries to get her back. Wyatt’s white male privilege is shaken when she kicks him out, and then he’s arrested for drunk driving in his friend’s borrowed car. We leave Wyatt with many lessons to learn about adulthood. It’s an interesting exploration of the roots of anger that so many men carry throughout their lives. Orth delivers the character in a pitch-perfect performance. One can easily imagine Wyatt 20 years later with two ex-wives, a criminal record for domestic violence and multiple restraining orders.
Orth is also one of the film’s screenwriters. He co-wrote it with the director, Andrew Zuckerman, a longtime friend from high school. They financed the film with the help of crowdfunding and shot it in well-known popular locations in the Twin Cities area. The film’s deepest realization is that it not only entertains, but also shows a glimpse of what life is like in 2022 for people embarking on an uncertain adult life. It’s enlightening for anyone who isn’t in that place in their lives and reassuring for those who are.
The overall vibe is modeled after other character-driven films that highlight situations rather than plots. Dazed and confused immediately comes to mind, as it is my favorite. It was one of the first examples of what came to be called the “Hangout” movie. The genre is a strong context for any independent film and a popular choice. More recently, in January 2022, young director Kit Zauhar released her film with similar themes titled real people. Zuckerman and Orth understand the importance of strong characters and relationships and both deliver them powerfully in Undergraduate students. Despite the limited budget, Zuckerman’s Undergraduate students is moving, authentic, easy to watch, and flows with solid cinematography and excellent performances.
Undergraduate students is available now on Amazon Prime Video.