Welcome to Academia (2009) – By Cary Conley

When I’m not working for Rogue Cinema, my other job is at a local community college. In fact, I am now in my third decade in the education profession. So when a copy of Welcome to Academia arrived for me to screen, I was more than a little curious as to the take these filmmakers had on what we in the profession call "postsecondary education." Filmed at Tulane University (did no administrators read the script??), Welcome to Academia is a satirical look at this nearly uncontrollable beast we call College.

Co-writer and director Kirk Davis has assembled an excellent ensemble cast of veteran character actors including Callie Thorne (who has been very busy on numerous TV shows), Jess Weixler (probably most famous for another satire, this one a horror film, called Teeth), veteran actor James LeGros, and veteran television actress Laila Robins. The story is about a fictional Ivy League college called Victoria University that is about to go bankrupt due to the poor leadership of the university’s president. During the ouster of the president, various burned-out professors and inept administrators vie for positioning in the ensuing power struggle. Valery Villanueva (Thorne) is a passionate but alienated Latino feminist who can’t seem to make a connection with her students. She plans on redesigning her entire curriculum based on her own radical theories, beginning with a new class called Pornology 101. She makes everyone refer to her as Valery Villanueva, Jr. as a statement against what she sees as a patriarchal society and she idolizes female porn stars because, in her judgment, they don’t adhere to the traditional feminine societal roles. She even invites a porn star to lecture about the role of feminism in pornography in her class.

Then there’s Sophie (Weixler), the beautiful but slightly naive grad student whose dissertation defense is derailed by the political maneuverings of the professors as they wrangle with one another, jockeying for position with the new administration. Sophie’s advisor is Revis (LeGros) who is a bit of a womanizer and has a (very) complicated relationship with his bitter ex-wife who also works at Victoria University. His plan to help Sophie move through a very difficult dissertation defense is spoiled when he is surprised by being named a Dean–which means he can no longer serve on Sophie’s examination team.

Finally, Revis’ ex-wife Deborah (Robins) is a beautiful and sultry but totally burned out English professor who throws books at her students and can’t stand the thought of even one more semester of teaching Shakespeare to a bunch of spoiled, disconnected kids with no appreciation of The Master. She desperately wants a deanship and is willing to screw–both figuratively as well as literally–anyone who can aid her cause.

Along with many other supporting characters, this must be one of the most dysfunctional universities I’ve ever seen–except that it seems to me that I’ve seen it all before…at every educational institution at which I’ve worked! Davis and co-writer Elzbieta Szoka have really hit the nail on the head with this darkly comic script. It wouldn’t surprise me if these two filmmakers had personal experiences with this dark side of the education profession. As these professors lie, cheat, and screw their way through the Ivy League halls of Victoria University, they leave a great deal of wreckage in their wake. The writing is deadly accurate in its depiction of the inner workings on just about any large educational institution and is also astute in the satirical depiction of professors who have been in the classroom one (or ten) years too long. Even the professors who want to improve the curriculum and the school in general make poor choices in their behavior when working toward their ultimate goals.

The portrayal of this band of misfits is both maddening as well as funny, but ultimately poignant as well, as we see good people with good ideas ground into dust by The System. The acting is excellent across the board as one would expect from such a large group of veteran character actors. Kirk has succeeded in putting every dollar of his relatively small budget on screen and the film certainly shows it. Welcome to Academia is an insightful and hilarious look at everything that is wrong with the American educational system. It is highly entertaining, but along the way succeeds in identifying several flaws that exist in a vast majority of schools across the country, including a payroll system that promotes political wrangling in order to increase both power and pay as well as an outdated tenure system that promotes complacency. As a lifelong educator, this film really hit home for me; however, you need not know much about the American education system to enjoy this razor-sharp satire on a purely comic level.

For more information about this film and to purchase your own DVD copy of Welcome to Academia, please go to www.welcometoacademia.com.