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by Devin McGinty
The life of a graduate student is not the first storyline that comes to mind when we think of entertaining movies. However, Jorge Cham challenged that notion with The PhD Movie, a film based on his long running comic strip, "Piled Higher and Deeper." Jorge brought his comic to life with this entertaining look into the academic balancing act we've come to know as graduate school.
The film focuses on the lives of four graduate students as they navigate the tricky world of post-graduate education. The setting and cast feel authentic; there are no sound studios or green screens required. The movie was shot at the California Institute of Technology, and most (if not all) of the actors are actual graduate students. This works in the movie's favor because the actors are believable; no one is going to win an Oscar for their performance, but it's evident that have had real-life experience with the quirky nuances of higher education.
The look of angst on the face of T.A. Cecilia (Kristin Dilworth) is believable as her students ask for needless extensions, or when she grades stacks of lackluster papers that leave her questioning her confidence in the future generation.
The casting is done so well that the movie feels like an extension of the comic strip. This is especially evident with the main character, The Nameless Grad Student (Raj Katti), who is constantly overwhelmed by his workload, in an underfunded department, where his unpredictable advisor seemingly views him as just another face in the crowd.
The pace of the movie is perfect, with a run-time of just over an hour. It actually leaves you wanting a little bit more. Judging by the success of the independent film, which has been screened at 450 universities and research centers around the world, it seems quite possible. (Update: The sequel is currently in progress!)
The movie resonates with current and former grad students, a dynamic in academia that is often overlooked. There are some great lines throughout the movie, such as when The Nameless Gradaute Student explains to his father, "I'm basically paying the university so I can do free work for them." The target audience is of course students that can identify with grad school life; however, the humor, quick pace, and convincing acting ensure that the film can appeal to just about anyone. You don't have to be in a fraternity to enjoy Animal House or Old School, and you don't have to be pursuing a Ph.D. to appreciate The PhD Movie.
One added bonus to the film is the soundtrack. It was cohesive with the style and pace of the film, and it nicely complimented both main scenes and transition scenes. Once again, the producers didn't go all Hollywood and cram in top 40 hits that will be irrelevant long after the movie debuts. Instead the soundtrack is comprised of mostly bands from the California Institute of Technology and the surrounding area. It is a nice touch, and it adds some texture to the film.
Struggling with a work-life balance, uncertainty about the future, and deflated expectations are all parts of life that we have to deal with. Add to that an unimpressed advisor, failing lab equipment, and a lack of academic job openings, and you're talking about grad school. Sometimes the best ideas arise when we are distracted, so the solution to your academic problems could be a bowl of popcorn and The PhD Movie. Enjoy!
Here is a link to The PhD Movie website, where you can stream the film for $10.