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Alexandra Lange

Child's Play


Apologies for the hiatus. I went away for the weekend, and managed not to consume any media for three days. Imagine that.

When I returned, the red envelope that awaited me contained Nursery University, a documentary about getting your child in to preschool in New York City. This year we did just that, but not in the manner of the anxiety-ridden Manhattan parents showcased in the film. We looked up all the preschools in our area, and found only one accepted toddlers who were 2 in August. We called the day after Labor Day for an application and tour. We sent in a deposit. In March, they called to say we were in. That, obviously, would not make a good documentary. And despite showing four families having everything but our experience, NU is not a good documentary.

The topic would (and has) made an excellent New York Magazine story, full of snark and class rage, allowing the reader to pleasure in over-educated and over-compensated people not getting what they want, kids being used as accessories, lots of money being thrown at the problem. And if NU’s directors had a satirical bone in their bodies, they would have focused on Heidi, the hot blonde mompreneur (she starts a business called Maternal Fitness, preying on the same parental anxiety before birth that the preschool consultants she scorns prey on after birth, during the film) who, when she is put on the waitlist at City & Country, loses her shit and tries unsympathetically to pull rank as an Ivy Leaguer. She also ends up leaving Manhattan, pregnant with her second child (and wearing a tight black strapless dress on moving day), for the more accommodating climes of Lexington, Concord or Brookline.

Instead, they go soft and broad, spreading their hour and a half between five families looking for very different things in a preschool: the artsy downtown parents who can’t believe there are lotteries for applications; the rich uptown parents who stand over their child, in a rictus of fear that she not know her numbers, at her Epiphany interview; America’s oldest mother, Aleta St. James and her twins, one with a delay; and the non-rich parents of Kieron, who just want to give him a better start than they had. The most painful scene in the film in when Kim, Kieron’s mother, attends an open house at the Mandell School. She seems to be the only non-white, non-networking person there and her sadness as she stands on the sidelines is palpable.

Aside from Heidi, the designated witch, the only other person who holds our interest is Gabriella Rowe, the head of school at Mandell, who for whatever reason let the cameras in to their application process. The scenes of her sitting on the floor, sensibly dressed in an L.L. Bean sweater, determining the fates of another lawyer’s or investment banker’s offspring, are fascinating. What we really want to know is how they decide, how can you decide between one 2-year-old and another. For a moment it seems like we might find out, but then we cut away. NU is not revealing enough for New Yorkers, not terrifying enough for the rest of the country. I’d like to see what the Real Housewives producers could have done with the footage.



Posted in: Film + Video

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Alexandra Lange Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.

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