Nursery University (2008, Directors: Marc Simon and Matt Makar): Marc Simon and Matt Makar are both single, childless lawyers who have made a film about the competitive process that parents in Manhattan face getting their children into the best nursery schools in the city. My wife and I went to see this together, and were expecting to be very annoyed with the subjects. You see, we’re also childless, but after more than a decade together, the issue is far from resolved for us, and we both have strong opinions about parenting. Though Toronto isn’t Manhattan, we do have a similar culture of older professionals having children for the first time, and the parents’ general sense of entitlement is nauseating. As well, they’re driven by both guilt and fear to try to give their children every advantage in a very competitive culture. This type of environment usually leads to overscheduled and stressed-out children and parents, and doesn’t necessarily lead to the desired results of fame and fortune for the little ones.
But Simon and Makar have a light touch, and even though the parents ranged from middle-class bohemians living in Greenwich Village to an obviously super wealthy couple living on the Upper West Side, all of them were sympathetic characters, with the possible exception of one couple who could serve as the poster children for “entitled”. All of them knew how ridiculous the process looked, but felt powerless to opt out for fear of putting their beloved child at a disadvantage. And remarkably, all of the children seemed bright and, at least in the final cut, well-behaved.
The strength of the film was that it was not just parent-focused. Administrators and teachers from all of the top schools were persuaded to take part, most at the insistence of the remarkable Gabriella Rowe from the prestigious Mandell School. The pressure on these school directors is enormous, with 15-20 applicants for each available space. The situation has been driven by what the directors refer to as a “post 9/11 baby boom” that has driven tuition rates as high as $20,000 per year and created a market for “admissions consultants” whose services can also cost a family several thousand dollars. The administrators in this film sympathize with the parents, but laughingly dismiss their worries that not getting into the right pre-school will affect their child’s chances of getting into the right college one day.
Though we were prepared to hate these people, my wife and I found ourselves wondering what we would do in their shoes. In Canada, at least, our public school system is still relatively healthy, so we don’t have to worry about which nursery is the right “feeder school” for the primary school we want our child to attend. Large cities like New York also face a tangle of regulations that make starting a new school difficult, not to mention the price of real estate. For the foreseeable future, getting a child into school in the city is bound to be a stressful and expensive proposition. Many couples end up forced to move to the suburbs, despite their desire to raise their children in the cultural richness of New York City.
The film was also careful to balance the stressful process with the reasons why parents endure it. There are many images of the riches of Manhattan, and many more of the joy and delight these children bring to their parents. In the end, these people do it because they love their children and they love their city, and they’ll do whatever they can to ensure that they can keep both. Good luck to all of them.
Here is the Q&A with directors Marc Simon and Matt Makar from after the screening: