NURSERY UNIVERSITY (Marc H. Simon, Matthew Makar, U.S.). 90 minutes. Saturday (April 19), 4:30 pm, ROM; Sunday (April 20), 6:45 pm, Al Green; ENCORE SCREENING: Sunday (April 27), 7 pm at the Al Green. Rating: NNNN
If you thought getting into the best colleges was difficult, that’s nothing compared to what faces Manhattan parents who are trying to get their three-year-old bundles of joy into the right private nursery school in a fiercely competitive market.
At some fabled institutions like the Chelsea Day School, City & Country and Mandell, there may be a couple dozen spots for new students, and up to 15 applications for each spot. Even if a student gets in, the family’s facing exorbitant fees, but that’s the least of the problems for most of the well-off subjects who are convinced that getting their kid into the right school early on will pave the way for a charmed life.
Directors Marc H. Simon and Matthew Makar initially approach their subject like high satire, using cutesy music and crayon-drawn graphics to accompany the shocking statistics. (It’s fitting – the subject, if you think about it, is pretty absurd.)
But soon we get to know five very different families as they work their way through the process. The families target the schools they want, try to secure applications (the day after Labour Day is when the action begins) and then, if they succeed in a lottery process or work their way up the inevitable wait list, actually get to sit through an interview, where both children and parents are casually monitored to see whether they’ll be a good fit. After that is when the real waiting begins, until the nail-biting period in March when the acceptance/rejection letters go out.
The directors, who remain invisible throughout (except for the adorable end credits), have chosen their subjects well. We follow Ivy League school-educated parents who are used to getting their first choice in everything, but also see people who have had to compromise and settle all their lives.
It’s hard not to sympathize with the subjects, who include a single mom in her 50s who’s raising twins, one of them with a learning disability, and a pair of black parents from Harlem who want to give their boy what they didn’t have. Even the one conniving West Village mom is understandable. Who, in the end, doesn’t want the best for their child?
We also get to see what life is like from the other side of the application process. The Mandell School’s Barbara Rowe radiates warmth, humour and intelligence, and you can tell it’s heart-breaking for her and her colleagues to turn away qualified children.
If you’re looking for a documentary that’ll make you laugh, cry and keep you on the edge of your seat, apply for a ticket to Nursery University. Just hope you get in.