'Higher Learning' offers a meager education

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Contrary to popular notion, college life is not a time of momentary decisions and day-to-day living. It's simply a scholastic battle arena peopled with individuals of various sexes, races, and ideologies who inherently hate each other and stagger down the road of self-depreciation by adopting radical stances on clich‚d issues.

At least that's what 26-year-old filmmaker John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") would have us believe with his new film "Higher Learning."

The movie follows two main characters, Malik (Omar Epps) and Kristen (Kristy Swanson), two freshmen who cruise through Columbus University's mean streets searching for social acceptance and personal relevance.

Malik, a track star, comes to school with a chip on his shoulder Ä he wants the school to respect him as a person instead of a sports item. Through the encouragement of Fudge (Ice Cube), a militant senior, Malik becomes involved in a reactionary group of black students who see themselves as victims of a white-favoring university.

Kristen, a girl who falls prey to small-town naivete when a drunken date becomes sexually abusive, suffers through subsequent guilt and a sexual identity crisis spawned by her budding romantic interest in her women's support group leader, Taryn (Jennifer Connelly).

Spicing up the issues vat is a social reject, Remy (Michael Rappaport), who becomes so angry with everyone that he joins a group of Neo-Nazis and becomes a mindless lunatic.

However, Singleton isn't really interested in the movie's characters. People simply vanish from the plot after they've served their purpose in raising a particular issue. Both Taryn and Kristen's second boyfriends virtually disappear after they make love to Kristen and establish that sexual experimentation occurs on college campuses. "Higher Learning" is not a movie about people, it's a movie about issues.

However, Singleton's single-minded determination to depict every popular social issue he can touch wears very thin after a short while. It's no surprise that racism, violence, and sexism occur on college campuses, but such issues do not solely create the college experience. Demeaning part-time jobs and how to carry their laundry home are more prevalent issues in most students' lives.

Singleton also displays a disturbing insecurity in presenting the Neo-Nazis. All their shots are angular and dark, and the music noticeably shifts to a menacing tone. Why does he need all the heavy-handed theatrics? Does he actually think people might empathize with the primitive psychotics if he doesn't overtly present them as movie baddies?

"Higher Learning" is too much of too little. It reduces college life to a multitude of clich‚d issues and doesn't leave room for anything in between. Shallowness isn't always a weakness, but when the movie is as determined to "address the issues" as this one, it would be nice to have some tangible substance to walk away with. "Higher Learning" does not.

"Higher Learning" is showing at Catalina Cinemas (881-0616).

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