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Grad School Funnies Get a Feature Film with ‘PhD Comics: The Movie’

To the best of my knowledge, Jorge Cham’s Piled Higher and Deeper (better known as PhD Comics) is the first webcomic to be adapted into a feature-length film. After months spent on a college campus screening tour, Piled Higher and Deeper: The Movie is finally available for purchase and streaming. And, like its comic inspiration, the PhD pokes fun at the frustrations of graduate students, those noble folks who enter academia with dreams of changing the world and inspiring young minds, only to be thwarted by indifferent professors, lazy undergrads and the ever-present fear that they’ll never graduate.Made in collaboration with a theater group at the California Institute of Technology, the PhD movie stars actual grad students, who portray exaggerated versions of the young academics hoping to add that coveted “Dr.” in front of their names. It follows the four grad students who recur throughout Cham’s comics: the Nameless Grad Student (Raj Katti), bright-eyed Cecilia (Alexandra Lockwood), laid-back Mike Slackenerny (Evans Boney) and topic-less sociology candidate Tajel (Crystal Dilworth).

Although PhD Comics has some short story arcs, it lacks character arcs by design. After all, much of the comic’s purpose is to showcase the interminableness of grad student life. Cham and company recognize, however, that a feature film demands clear arcs, and manages to supply them without shortchanging the movie’s comedic anthropology. NGS and Cecilia are the stars, two very different grad students with very different problems. NGS is a newbie grad student, a guy who arrived on campus with big dreams about contributing to important research, only to find that no professor will take him on. When the gruff Professor Smith (perhaps the most recognizable and abusive prof from the comics) agrees to let NGS work on his current research project, NGS lands a seemingly impossible task, one that might just drive him out of grad school. Cecilia, on the other hand, is a career grad student with an eye toward a Berkeley faculty position. But she’s starting to fear that she’s sacrificed her other life goals in the pursuit of her degree, and her TA job has left her disillusioned with teaching.

Even while NGS and Cecilia are figuring out their places in the academic world, we’re treated to live-action versions of many of the classic PhD comics, such as “Grad Student Etiquette,” “High School Reunion,” “We’re All Doomed,” “The Lab Hierarchy,” “The Profzi Scheme” and “The Most Unverifiably Interesting Man in the World.” PhD Comics has always played with the inside baseball of PhD programs (especially science PhD programs) while remaining accessible to those of us who’ve never known the horrors of holding office hours, and the movie manages to walk that same line.

Director Vahe Gabuchian opted for a cartoony feel for his adaptation, a choice that works well given that his actors spend more time in the lab than on the stage. Even though a few of the actors stumble over their delivery (and others really only get comfortable in their roles late in the film), there’s an earnestness that bleeds through. These are people who understand long nights spent fighting with lab equipment over bowls of ramen, and it makes the movie’s staginess seem endearing rather than artificial. Lockwood in particular seems game for anything, and she adds a geeky joy to the usually dour Cecilia. Apparently, Lockwood made up Cecilia’s “hash table” dance herself (which is an amazing contribution), and I could buy her as a teaching assistant who labels her cupcakes “P” and “NP” to distinguish the vegan cupcakes from the gluten-free ones. K. Zachary Abbott is such a dead ringer for Professor Smith, and so perfectly captures his indifference to grad students that he seems to have stepped right out of the comics.

You can access a streaming version of Piled Higher and Deeper: The Movie for $10, download it for an additional $5 or order the DVD for $17. No matter how you buy it, 5% of your purchase supports Endeavor College Prep, a charter school that serves students in East Los Angeles who are looking to go to college.

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