If your kids don’t get into a good preschool, then how will they EVER get into a good college?!
Dir. Marc Simon & Matthew Makar, 2009, 90 min
I knew about a minute into Nursery University that I would hate every single person in it. On the long, long list of “problems other people have that I care about,” you’ll find “it’s hard to get our child into a preschool” on the floor underneath the table that the list sits on. These are first world issues at their first worldiest, and it doesn’t help that any of the parents we see in the film are, at best, only halfway willing to acknowledge how ridiculous this all is.
There’s been a baby boom in New York City in recent years, and there simply aren’t enough free spaces in the best private preschools. Thus, people have to do their best to somehow make three-year-olds (or younger, since the waiting lists open up A YEAR before the time they’ll be starting) look “attractive” to potential schools. The doc follows five hopeful kids and, or rather their parents, as they hunt for the perfect pre-learning environment. It’s a crowded field; some schools even have to hold lotteries to determine who will and won’t get in. This is the second doc I’ve watched about kids being picked by lottery for enrollment. Except those kids were dirt poor, and trying to get a decent education. Once you’ve seen that, it’s a bit hard to give a shit about any of this.
It is fascinating, though, how even the lowest-stake of competitions bring out the fiercest edge in people. In fact, some of the most entertaining conflicts in documentaries are fought over the silliest things (See Word Wars, or Please Vote For Me, or the crowning example, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters). When viewed as a sort of urban jungle anthropological study, Nursery University is quite entertaining. But that only takes it so far. The sad fact is that there has to be some sympathy with these parents to carry us through the whole movie, and I could not muster any at all.
I was wrong, though. I didn’t hate everyone in the movie. The kids are cute, for one thing. And the teachers and administrators at these schools are surprisingly cooler about this phenomenon than I expected. They don’t encourage the competition to drive up prestige for their academies; quite the opposite, in fact. They are all exasperated in the extreme over moms and dads relentlessly shooting them phone calls, weary of having to listen about how gifted this and that toddler totally is, we swear. They don’t like having to turn away so many kids each year, and they just want to do their job well. And yet no matter how much they deny that preschool education doesn’t really affect what college a child will get into, the parents press on regardless.
Nursery University is a sporadically interesting look at one example of the folly of upper-class / middle-upper-class people with too much time on their hands. I’m not sure if there was any way to give me an emotional investment in these parents’ struggles, but if there was, then this film sure missed the mark on that front. Since none of the kids are even trying to get into the same school, there’s not even much real conflict driving the narrative. The few moments of engagement come mainly from an older single mother coming to grips with her son’s possible social disorder, but that isn’t really enough. It’s lightweight, ephemeral work.