Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm (1994)

reviewed by
Scott Renshaw

                       A film review by Scott Renshaw
                        Copyright 1994 Scott Renshaw

Filmed and directed by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine.

In the summer of 1990, eighty incoming Stanford University freshman received a letter informing them of a unique opportunity. Documentary filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine were planning to record their all-freshman dorm for the year, and anyone who would feel uncomfortable with that arrangement was invited to switch to a different dorm. None so chose. The next nine months of their lives were saved for posterity as FROSH, an attempt to document a year when pupate human beings become adults. Unfortunately, it's not particularly successful. FROSH captures moments, but due to its overly large canvas it doesn't capture enough growth.

FROSH focuses its attention on nine of the eighty 1990-91 residents of Stanford's Trancos House. Shayne, a white Catholic woman, struggles to reconcile her religion with her budding feminism. Cheng, a first generation Chinese-American, quips about Stanford's liberal bias while coping with academic difficulties. Brandi, a middle-class African-American who admits early on that she's "never really had black friends," becomes friends with Monique, an African-American with a very different background. There's also Nick, an activist who's openly bisexual; Debbie, a woman from a conservative religious background; Gerardo, suspected by his dormmates of being gay; Scott, a perceptive and sharp-witted African-American; and Sam, a conservative white male who often finds himself at the center of controversy.

I should preface my comments by stating that I spent three years, in various capacities, living in freshman dorms at Stanford. I wasn't expecting to see anything I'd never seen before; what I was expecting was a film that highlighted real growing experiences, and allowed viewers to watch the first tentative steps of kids into adulthood. A few such moments in FROSH work extremely well, particularly Shayne's emotional discussion with a few friends about why she's considering leaving the Catholic Church. Another scene highlights Monique describing her troubled home life, prompting one young man to ask in amazement, "You mean your mom and dad were never married?" But there aren't enough of these moments. FROSH seems more interested in being a kind of rapidly edited video yearbook, and like most yearbooks it's only going to be really significant to those who lived the moments.

Part of the problem with FROSH is that even the nine-student focus is too large. FROSH will uncover an issue in one of their lives, but doesn't take the time to show us the resolution. We never learn, for example, if at the end of the year Shayne is still a Church-going Catholic; we never learn how Cheng recovers from his disappointing first-quarter grades. When it's all said and done, FROSH comes off as an interesting anthropological footnote, but not a particularly deep or insightful look at why the freshman year at a residential university is so significant.

My primary bone of contention is that in its attempt to keep its brow relatively high, FROSH almost completely ignores two of the most challenging issues of the freshman year: romantic relationships and substance use. There is one look at a blind date, but little more. No one in FROSH forms an in-dorm couple; no one is shown locked out by an "occupied" roommate; no one is shown breaking up with a high school sweetheart. These events are as formative as any late night discussion, but FROSH adopts a hands-off attitude. Similarly, while we witness a dorm party and a few subsequent hangovers, we see no one dealing with the pressures to drink, no one getting stoned for the first time. Perhaps out of fear of scaring off their subjects, Geller and Goldfine have excised most material parents wouldn't want to know.

FROSH does a nice job of capturing freshman in all their bombast and naivete. In one scene, a professor tells Debbie as she attempts to describe a term paper topic, "You're babbling"; in another, one dormmate asks Shayne, "If there was no, like, racism or sexism, what would you talk about?" Where it comes up short is as an examination of how much an individual can change in these nine pivotal months. Trust me ... I was there.

     On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 frosh:  4.
Scott Renshaw
Stanford University
Office of the General Counsel

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