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Now & Then: From Frosh to Seniors

Not rated, 87 min. Directed by Dayna Goldfine, Dan Geller.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Oct. 29, 1999

So it's a quarter to midnight and you're alone in your sepulchral law office, grimly making up the billable-hours deficit you incurred during your biennial vacation. And then it hits you: God! What you wouldn't give to be back in college again! Rocking and debauching until 4am; wooing sexy French exchange students with made-up Derrida quotes; taking the film courses you were sure would set you on the path to becoming the next Scorsese … Well, before you go overboard in idealizing your collegiate days, make time for the bittersweet reality check provided by this trenchantly entertaining documentary. Now & Then is in essence a series of exit interviews with 10 Stanford University seniors who were previously the subjects of Geller and Goldfine's 1994 film, Frosh. (No familiarity with Frosh is necessary since Now & Then incorporates much of its content in flashback.) Though each of these young men and women are bright, self-possessed, and obviously much the better for their time at Stanford, their stories, captured in four years of unstaged footage, inspire equal measures of wry reminiscence and pained winces. College, especially for sensitive, searching spirits like this culturally and ethnically diverse cast, is a time when we escape high school's Orwellian regimentation only to face an even more daunting challenge: constructing a sense of identity from whole cloth. Who really knows what the fuck they want from life at 18? Certainly not Debbie, who transforms before our eyes from naive sorority cupcake to self-assured feminista. Or the frankly overwhelmed Monique, a ghetto-bred crackhead's daughter struggling to break the success code embodied by her white classmates (whose cluelessness on racial matters sets her off on several exasperated rants) without sacrificing the core of her African-American identity. Putative bisexual Nick comes out in slow degrees as unabashedly gay. Inseparable straight buddies Gerardo and Chris, meanwhile, have to deal with meathead dorm mates' suspicions that they're men's men in the Monty Clift rather than the John Wayne sense. Equally tough coming-of-age problems face winsome, dateless frat boy Sam, Type A Chinese-American striver Cheng, and social conscience-stricken prelaw student Shayne. These archetypal, yet strikingly vivid and affecting tales are captured with great skill by Goldfine and Geller, who use a straightforward vérité approach in which no attempt is made to deny the camera's presence. So novelistically perfect are the stories' resolutions that they almost seem contrived at times. In the end, however, the filmmakers' direct, unstylized approach and the subjects' often startling candor earns the potent validation of personal identification for anyone who's ever run the unique collegiate gauntlet of soul-enlarging psychic trauma. Personally, I wouldn't have missed it for anything. But thanks to this terrific piece of sociological reporting, I'm also grateful beyond words that it's a once in a lifetime thing. Shut down that Way-Bak machine, Sherman. The here and now will do me just fine.
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