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23 High School Movies That Get The Passing Grade

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 15, 2012 at 4:17PM

Considering it's where most of us (bar the weird home-schooled kids) spend our crucial formative years, where we have our first fights, our first loves, our first tentative steps into adulthood, it's no surprise that high school has long been a popular setting for a movie. A range of genres (but generally leaning towards comedy) have taken place in those hallways, particularly from the 1980s onwards, when John Hughes, among others, made an entire career out of the lives and loves of 15-18 year olds.
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23 High School Movies That Get The Passing Grade

Considering it's where most of us (bar the weird home-schooled kids) spend our crucial formative years, where we have our first fights, our first loves, our first tentative steps into adulthood, it's no surprise that high school has long been a popular setting for movies. A range of genres (though generally leaning towards comedy) have taken place in those hallways, particularly from the 1980s onwards, when John Hughes, among others, made an entire career out of the lives and loves of 15-18 year olds.

The latest film to head back to class is "21 Jump Street" (review here) the big-screen reboot of the '80s TV show, which stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as youthful-looking cops who are sent back to high school in order to bust a drug-running ring. While you might assume this to be another lazy remake, you'd be very wrong, as Tatum, Hill, co-writer Michael Bacall, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have turned out one of the most entertaining films of the year so far, by quite some measure.

As such, it seemed to be a good opportunity to dip into the history of the genre, so below, we've run down some of the finest examples (and one or two less shining ones, that are nevetheless crucial in the development of the archetype) of the high school movie. Have a look, and pay attention; there will be a test later...

Blackboard Jungle

The Blackboard Jungle” (1955)
Today best known as the movie that brought rock'n' roll to the movie theaters, thanks to Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around The Clock" (legendarily, and possibly apocryphally, causing audiences to dance and riot in the aisles), "The Blackboard Jungle" does not, it should be said, hold up especially well. Adapted by director Richard Brooks ("Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," "In Cold Blood") from a best-selling novel, it's a reactionary, virtually hysterical melodrama about a good-hearted teacher (Glenn Ford) who attempts to tame a class of near-feral inner-city school kids, and their psychotic leader Artie (Vic West). Brooks lenses it moodily, but the film is pure fearmongering (albeit with a liberal redemptive ending), and has dated very poorly, right down to Anne Francis' "I'm a silly woman, don't listen to me" schtick. But it's worth watching for one reason in particular: the fiery turn from Sidney Poitier, in his breakout role as the provocative, troubled kid with a hidden talent for music. It's a rote role, but a star is born the second Poitier steps on screen. [C-]

Last Picture Show

"The Last Picture Show" (1971)
Anyone who’s read the excellent book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (and seen its subsequent documentary adaptation) knows that director Peter Bogdanovich was once the toast of Hollywood during the ‘70s glory days, and much of it has to do with this fantastic and frank coming of age tale set in a small, desolate Texas town. Though the film is more about things coming to an end (the title refers to the local movie theater that’s closing down) and the inevitable tides of change that happen as one grows up, it’s ostensibly a high school movie as well. Once of the best in fact, mostly because of its honesty. “The Last Picture Show” would be much more sad and difficult to watch were it not for the ace casting (Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Clu Gulager, Randy Quaid) and impeccable black and white cinematography by Robert Surtees that perfectly captures the dusty and decrepit feel of this small town. Bogdanovich would continue his reign throughout the decade with the even better “Paper Moon” and many other loving odes to past cinema (in many ways he’s a precursor to Quentin Tarantino and his modern day ilk), but ‘Last Picture’ is one of the true gems of the best decade in film history. [A]

American Graffiti

American Graffiti” (1973)
A decent amount of people hold this one very dear to their hearts, but to be honest, the majority likely know this as the lone anomaly in George Lucas's directorial career -- the only one that doesn't just refrain from fantasy, but actively forces reality on its protagonists. 'Graffiti' follows a very likable cast (including Richard Dreyfuss and the Garry Marshall dream-team Ron Howard and Cindy Williams) on the final night before the gang goes off to college, mining both drama and comedy from everyone's first big, reluctant step into adulthood. Lucas, who has been criticized for hokey emotional moments and wooden acting in his most recent work, manages to nail not only the '60s atmosphere but also the free-spirit nature of being a teenager. While having a car as a young 'un is certainly a responsibility, it also offers a sense of freedom and endless possibilities, a feeling that the movie relishes in -- driving around aimlessly never meant so much than to a bored high school student. That said, it's not the most compelling thing to watch (it can get quite chatty at times) but the monotony of interior-car-scenes are thankfully broken up by some incredibly sincere, heartbreaking moments, including one where Dreyfuss catches a teacher/mentor engaging in a questionable act with a student. In many ways, the real world is thrust upon us with little warning, something that everyone in the movie eventually comes to terms with whether they like it or not. As the credits roll, the issue of Greedo shooting first becomes incredibly irrelevant. Instead, let's badger George into getting back the heart he showed here. [B]

Carrie

"Carrie" (1976)
The horrors of going through puberty in a hormone-infested institution full of your peers can be related to by more than most, but it takes the special combination of Stephen King and Brian De Palma to come up with a horror film that's both as terrifying and deeply felt as "Carrie." Based on King's debut novel, it opens with oddball Carrie White (an Oscar-nominated Sissy Spacek) getting her first period (something her monstrous, fundamentalist Christian mother -- Piper Laurie -- never prepared her for) in the shower, and being tormented by her classmates as a result. As it turns out, Carrie has telekenetic powers so this, and their subsequent prom prank, turns out to be something of a mistake. De Palma brings all his Hitchcockian skills to racking up the tension, but crucially, it's his empathy with his central character (De Palma's abilities as a director of women are still underrated) that makes Carrie into a classic, pitiable yet terrifying movie monster that can hold court next to Boris Karloff's Dracula and Lon Chaney's Wolf Man. One could argue that the film's dated a little over the past twenty-five years, but it's still an enormously involving watch and one of the very greatest horror films. [A]

Grease

Grease” (1978)
A raucous, occasionally air-headed but thoroughly heartfelt celebration of the carefree follies of youth, the Randall Kleiser-directed adaptation of Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs's 1971 musical remains equally charming to this day. A spry, young John Travolta makes for a spirited Danny Zuko, a greaser harboring a gentle soul and carrying a torch for Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), a polite, conservative young woman whose values will be tested. Beloved for its musical interludes (which remain surprisingly raunchy to this day -- “Greased Lightnin’” has some choice zingers), “Grease” should be equally lauded for its strong supporting cast (including Stockard Channing and Jeff Conaway) and an un-neutered, almost artful breakdown of teenage sexuality and social mechanics. It’s a smarter film than it seems and its faults are few and far between (a rushed ending is a minor one) -- a predictable fairy tale with clear-cut good and bad guys, but also a feel-good attitude that is certain to remind older viewers of looking at the world and thinking you could do anything, of stretching out your wings before they were clipped. A memorable, sugary classic. [A-]

Rock N Roll High School

"Rock 'n' Roll High School" (1979)
For a film that started life from a script with the working title of “Disco High," it's hard to believe that the musical vehicle that would end up driving what was to become "Rock 'n' Roll High School” through to completion were The Ramones. But then again, they were a band that personified goofy humour and celebrated freaks, geeks and pinheads alike; they fit the tone of a screwball high school comedy to perfection. The film follows former cheerleader Riff Randall (played adorably by P.J. Soles), Vince Lombardi High’s resident Ramones fan, and all-round rock n’ roll rebel, as she goes up against the new super-tough Principal Togar (Warhol alumnus Mary Woronov) and her two goons, who try to stop Riff from going to a Ramones concert and giving Joey Ramone the songs she wrote for him. Though she succeeds in attending the concert, Togar then tries to burn all the students' Ramones records, so enough is enough; time to destroy the school, which pre-1999 was an innocent enough idea. Produced by B-movie master Roger Corman and directed by frequent Joe Dante collaborator Alan Arkush, "Rock 'n' Roll High School" is the perfect mix of good-bad gags, surreal humour and lots of music.  None of the Ramones could act (especially Dee Dee, who gets two cringeworthy lines about pizza), but The Ramones sure could play. In fact, the sheer number of live tunes that Arkush crammed in around the narrative is to his credit, and includes everything from “Blitzkrieg Bop” to “Teenage Lobotomy”. Gabba Gabba Hey! [B]

Fast Times At Ridgemont High

"Fast Times At Ridgemont High" (1982)
Like a real-life "21 Jump Street" (without the cop angle, clearly), the young Cameron Crowe, at only 22 a veteran Rolling Stone journalist, posed as a student, and enrolled at Clairemont High School in San Diego, documenting the experiences of his peers in a book, "Fast Times At Ridgemont High." Before it was even in bookstores, the rights had been snapped up, with Crowe adapting the screenplay for director Amy Heckerling. As such, it's no surprise that Crowe's journalistic background meant that the film felt far more authentic than anything that had been seen in the genre up to that point, with a frankness that, while not exactly Larry Clark, remains a little shocking even today (one forgets that Jennifer Jason Leigh's character is only 15, for instance). Thankfully, the film also contains the warmth and sweetness (and a killer soundtrack, including The Cars, Tom Petty and Led Zeppelin) that Crowe would become known for in later years as a director; the tentative romance between Brian Backer's Rat and Stacy is the template for much that would follow, while the not-as-wise-as-she-thinks-she-is Linda (Phoebe Cates) gives added dimension to a whole generation. But arguably the most indelible creation (in a cast that also includes early turns from Nicolas Cage, Anthony Edwards and Forest Whitaker) is Sean Penn as the perma-stoned Jeff Spicoli. His sunny disposition virtually created an entire archetype, and still serves as a reminder that before his image became so self-important, Penn was a gifted comic actor. [B+]

The Breakfast Club

"The Breakfast Club" (1985)
So, not entirely sure we even need a list here, folks. “The Breakfast Club” is truly all the high school movie any of us could ever want. The apotheosis of acknowledged master of the genre John Hughes’ teen pics (and the second in a directorial run of four, back-to-back), the film may not be subtle, but then the teenage years are hardly known for their subtlety or restraint. From the opening voiceover “you see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal...“ the film ranges from genuinely funny to occasionally cringeworthy in its sincerity (though we’ll defend to the death getting verklempt over poor Anthony Michael Hall’s inability to get the elephant lamp to work in shop). But what’s truly endearing is the honest faith it displays in the fundamental goodness of youth. White youth, that is, ahem. Diversity issues aside, the setup is inspired: a bunch of stereotypes (the defining '80s high school movie cast of Hall, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy) are thrown together into the pressure cooker of a Saturday morning detention, overseen by absentee teacher/nemesis/stooge Mr. Vernon (Richard Gleason). Over the course of a few hours they bond across social divides, discover that rich kids can be just as miserable as poor kids (parents do not come out of this well) and, in a scene destined to be referenced and parodied a hundred times, get high and dance around the library. To try and analyse why any of this works beyond simple nostalgia (and we’ll admit to a healthy dose of that) is really a fool’s errand: somehow Hughes managed to capture lightning in a high-school-shaped bottle on several occasions, and never more enjoyably than here. Somehow by the time we get to the pat philosophical wrap up of “we discovered that we are each of us a brain and an athlete and a princess...etc” we are too caught up even to notice how truly horrible that Simple Minds song is. [A]

Ferris Bueller

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986)
Sometimes a film is such a cultural touchpoint that it’s hard to see it’s actually pretty atypical of the kind of movie it has come to represent. And so it is with John Hughes’ 1986 sine qua non of the high school film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Without doubt deserving its spot in the pantheon, one of the things that makes ‘Ferris’ so enduringly popular, and endlessly referenced is that, in one of the most formulaic of genres, the particular trick it pulls off has never really been repeated. Other movies on this list deal with the pain of being an outsider, the longing for acceptance, and the cruel alienations and humiliations that seem world-ending when viewed through the magnifying prism of hormonal teenagerdom. But Ferris? Nope. Ferris is popular. Crazy popular, no less, with a pretty girlfriend (Mia Sara), a doggedly loyal best friend (Alan Ruck) and a school seemingly stuffed to the brim not just with admirers, but with fans; if his bitchy sister (Jennifer Grey) and arch adversary principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) don’t buy into the hype, they are the only two. Ferris is beloved by all, manipulative to the point of smug, extroverted, self-confident and ridiculously lucky: by all rights we should hate the hell out of him. But we don’t, because Matthew Broderick is so guilelessly adorable in the role, and because Ferris, winking and wisecracking to camera, wins us over too, damn him. Long before he leaps in agonising slow-mo over that backyard fence to the strains of Yello, long before Cameron has wrecked his Dad’s Ferrari (but is gonna be OK), long before sister Jeanie has had the bitch snogged out of her by a winning (sorry) Charlie Sheen, we are totally with Ferris. Still simply one of the most exuberant and strangely innocent celebrations of how fucking great it can be to be young and cool, block your eyes and ears to the puffy middle-aged defeatism of the recent Honda ad and rediscover the original. Save Ferris. [A]

Three O'Clock High

Three O’Clock High” (1987)
Director Phil Joanou is probably best remembered as a co-conspirator with U2 in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (he directed “Rattle & Hum,” plus iconic music videos like “One”), and to a slightly lesser degree, 1990’s “State of Grace,” an awesome, but undersung New York crime drama starring Sean Penn and Gary Oldman (we remembered it here, its worth tracking down). Then after that came a lot of unmentionable work (“Final Analysis,” “Heaven's Prisoners,” “Gridiron Gang”), but what almost everyone forgets is that Joanou’s feature-length debut was the cult-classic teen comedy, “Three O’Clock High” starring Casey Siemaszko, Richard Tyson, and featuring appearances by Jeffrey TamborPhilip Baker Hall and even a young Paul Feig as a hall monitor. Featuring Joanou’s manic and inventive camera movements and staging, “Three O’ Clock High” is like high school on amphetamines, and features a wicked synth score by Tangerine Dream. Style aside, the teen comedy, all of a brisk 97 minutes long, centers on a high school nerd (Siemaszko) who is assigned to write a piece for the school paper about Buddy Revell (Tyson), a new transfer who has a fearsome reputation for putting unwelcome students into the hospital for what seem to be trivial reasons. Buddy doesn’t like to be touched. As in ever. So when Jerry, Siemaszko’s nerd character tries to bond with him with a pat on the shoulder, he is challenged to a do-or-die fight after class, at three o’clock on the dot. The rest of the picture is a manic chronicle of Jerry doing his best to get out of the fight -- by ditching school, trying to plant knives in his adversary's locker, and hiring tough guys to (unsuccessfully) vanquish his opponent before the final bell rings when he must face his doom. And of course, there’s an all-out brawl at the end that’s rather comical and memorable, but most of all, “Three O’ Clock High” is like a weird oddity; a speedy, adrenalined-out teen comedy unlike most you’ve ever seen. [B+]

Say Anything

"Say Anything" (1989)
Having already had a hand in one great teen flick of the 1980s, Cameron Crowe managed to top "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" with his directorial debut. Detailing the romance between big-hearted, aimless aspiring kickboxer Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack in his quintessential role), and the bright, socially awkward valedictorian with family problems (Ione Skye, who somehow failed to become the biggest star in the world on the back of this), Crowe never once subscribes to stereotypes or cliches, following an authentically stunted, awkward romance that makes the heart swoon more than once; few filmmakers have captured the stomach-churning thrill of first love better. That might suggest that the film isn't hilarious, but it absolutely is: Crowe's endlessly quotable script is still among his best work to date. Crowe's begun to talk about a possible sequel of late, and while part of us thrills to the idea, we're not sure our mental health can take seeing Lloyd and Diane anywhere else but on that plane to London together. [A+]

Heathers

"Heathers" (1989)
Coming in two years after the sappily titled “Pretty in Pink”, “Heathers” is a darkly comic satire on the brutality of high school cliques. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder, in one of her first roles), a relatively normal middle-class girl with an above average IQ, has been adopted by the popular girls, all called Heather, but isn’t sure she can hack the moral ambiguity and all-around vapid bitchiness that comes with the crown. Everything changes when she meets the new kid J.D. (Christian Slater, aping Jack Nicholson), whose disdain for the high school hierarchy, and readiness with a weapon, provides her with a way out: Offing the popular kids. J.D. deceives Veronica and funnels her adolescent fury into violent action. Painting their murders as suicides, Veronica and J.D. get revenge and attempt to upend the social order, however little changes at the high school, as suicide becomes a trend (with number one single “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” by Big Fun, playing in the background), while the Queen Bees at Westerburg High (named for the frontman of The Replacements) are quickly replaced. Veronica manages to foil J.D.’s dramatic plans to blow up the school, create "a Woodstock for the 80s," and simultaneously usurp and break free of the Heathers, taking up instead with the school dork Martha Dunnstock, and striking a blow for teenage misfits everywhere. The script is a sarcastic gold mine for made-up teen quotables, from ‘What's your damage?’ to "How very" and the cynically romantic "Our love is God, let’s go get a slushie." The out-of-touch teachers and parents all make hilarious straight men, whether they are ignoring the events or going into overzealous touchy-feely smother-mode, as one hippie teacher earnestly informs the kids, "Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make." Its hard to believe that Winona Ryder was just 17 when she made "Heathers," -- the world weary one-liners and simultaneous eye-roll seem like second nature, and the combo-release of “Beetlejuice” that same year made her the object of outsider adoration the world over. “Heathers,” though a box office dud. became a cult classic and source material for a spate of black high school comedies in the future. [A]

Dazed And Confused

"Dazed And Confused" (1993)
Coming out in 1993, a year when the Internet was still a novelty concept, and set in 1976, “Dazed and Confused” was already steeped in nostalgia, that feeling has only grown in the nearly two decades that have followed. The film begins and ends in the 24 hours that surmises the last day of school before the long summer break in a small town in Texas. The to-be seniors wander the halls, kings and queens of the school, getting ready to haze the freshman, girls are tortured with humiliation, and boys with good ‘ol fashioned paddling. The ensemble cast is filled with your usual high school archetypes -- nerds, jocks, popular kids, and stoners, which just happened to be played by to-be-celebs including Ben Affleck, as the repeating senior with a chip on his shoulder; Parker Posey as the ultimate mean girl; and Matthew McConaughey as the iconic, sleazy stoner Wooderson, whose character defining line – ‘That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, and they stay the same age.’ helped make this role a break out for the future rom-com star. Loosely structured, the film follows two intertwining narratives of one senior (Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd played by Jason London) and one freshman (Mitch Kramer played by Wiley Wiggins), one at the top and the other at the bottom of the high school food chain respectively, when the film starts. While the older popular Pink is struggling with the powers that be forcing him into adult choices and threatening his youthful freedom, Mitch is just beginning to enjoy the first fun parts of being older: girls, parties, booze etc. Throughout the film, scenes are punctuated perfectly by one of the best soundtracks of all time, which should make those born well after the 80s nostalgic for 70s classic rock; the film is bookended by the now classic combo of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” and Foghat’s “Slow Ride." Though Linklater seems to deny the heady nostalgifcation that abounds in 'Dazed' with lines like, “If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself,”  perhaps he’s also hinting at the inevitability of donning rose tinted glasses that come with age, and losing the frustration with the world (however small) that comes with being 17. Its hard not envy the seemingly lost innocence of the 70s as the kids car-hop, drink and smoke before heading off to "party at the moon tower."  [A]

Clueless

"Clueless" (1995)
If the only merit of “Clueless” were introducing the world to Paul Rudd (who turns us into giggling sophomores), we’d give it a passing grade. But we don’t even need Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz to argue on its behalf to give it high marks; this is a deceptively smart satire that brings Jane Austen’s “Emma” from Regency-era England into a modern-day Beverly Hills high school. Emma Woodhouse has never been the most beloved of Austen’s heroines, and in turn, we probably would have hated her 20th-century equivalent Cher if she sat next to us in class and compared the plight of the Haitians to her father’s overstuffed party. However, that doesn’t mean she isn’t the film’s most quotable character, one who ably bounces between brilliance and the idiocy that only a teenage girl can possess. The witty, bubbly script from writer/director Amy Heckerling (returning to the teen milieu after “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) manages to reference Contempo Casuals (may it rest in peace), Nietzsche, Pauly Shore and Oscar Wilde, sometimes in the same breath, while fully establishing the lines between the loadies, the Baldwins, and the Barneys on the quad. With revolving closets, a party dress by Alaia (“a-what-a?”) and not knowing who Pippi Longstocking is, this wasn’t our high school experience, but at least the music was the same. We can still quote along with the movie and nod our heads along with the requisite mid-’90s soundtrack that featured The Cranberries, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Jill Sobule, Coolio, Luscious Jackson, Counting Crows and even Radiohead. [B]

"Rushmore"
"Rushmore"

"Rushmore" (1998)
Wes Anderson's sophomore film, the one that truly landed him on the cultural map, sees the filmmaker scratching his J.D. Salinger itch, to superb results. This is essentially Anderson’s “Catcher in the Rye” (his followup “The Royal Tenenbaums” is clearly indebted to the author’s Glass family stories), with Max Fischer serving as the film’s Holden Caulfield. Jason Schwartzman was perfectly cast in his first acting role as Max; he’s yet to better this performance. And of course, how can we forget Bill Murray? He simply owns this movie whenever he’s present, making the most of a great part that fits him like a glove. This was a big step in Murray’s move away from more mainstream comedies to indie-inflected comedy/dramas, and his first collaboration with Anderson, one that has proven ever-fruitful and rewarding (it just wouldn’t be a Wes Anderson film without him in some capacity). The film is consistently funny and touching and its not-quite-reality-as-we-know-it, just-left-of-center world (something Anderson would push even further in subsequent films) belies its honest look at growing up a confused, misguided kid in high school. And how can anyone not love the soundtrack? Memorable tracks abound in the collection, most notably John Lennon’s adorable “Oh Yoko” (which should put a smile on the face of even the grumpiest of people), Creation’s “Making Time” (played over the awesome opening credit sequence), The Rolling Stones’ “I Am Waiting” and the closing song “Ooh La La” by Faces. There’s been some debate around The Playlist water cooler whether or not this is in fact a high school movie. Some of the crew argues it’s more coming of age, but aren’t they essentially interchangeable? This writer thinks so. Also, you can’t deny the importance of the titular school itself, one that’s truly a fully-rounded character in the film. It’s Max Fischer’s reason for being, after all. [A]

Election

Election” (1999)
High school movies tend to come in very specific flavors: the gross-out comedy, the sweet and endearing, the nostalgically romantic, etc. But you'll be hard pressed to find anything like Alexander Payne's sophomore pic, a dark, biting story concerning candidates in a student government election. Led by the perfectly cast Matthew Broderick (looking worn down, as if the real world caught up with Ferris Bueller), a trio of Chris Klein, Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Campbell duke it out for the presidency in stand out performances while Broderick's Civics teacher tries his damndest to keep uptight manipulator Witherspoon from securing the big chair. The screenplay juggles four different viewpoints effectively by keeping things fair -- everyone kind of fumbles and looks like an idiot, procuring laughs from stupid behavior or someone's goofy face in a freeze frame. The latter is part of a snappy aesthetic that never produces a dull moment, nor a phony one -- Payne utilizes them in a careful, sporadic way, and what generally can become a crutch just embellishes the hilarious, hate-them-all tone. It's a tricky act to pull off considering audience members generally want to like their protagonists, but the actors are so committed to the flawed people they're portraying that it's hard to hate them. When Klein mentions that he "wants to play football so bad he can taste it" it's a riot -- but it's also incredibly earnest. The director doesn't compromise his vision for a sweet ending, instead creating one that fits snugly within the picture's confounds, finding fulfillment in its own way. [A-]

Virgin Suicides

"The Virgin Suicides" (2000)
Sofia Coppola proved herself a filmmaker to be reckoned with her debut feature, “The Virgin Suicides”, an adaption of the Jeffrey Eugenides’ book of the same name. The film tells the story of the five teenage Lisbon sisters -- Cecilia, Lux (Kirsten Dunst at her teen-dreamiest), Bonnie, Mary and Therese, as remembered by a group of neighbourhood boys. Recounting the events that led up to the girls suicides, the story is told by omniscient deadpan narrator (Giovanni Ribisi), who guides us through the dreamy, sun dappled visions (aided by Edward Lachman’s knockout cinematography) of the young girls lives, from first kisses and dances through to heartbreak. As the boys piece together scraps of information to build a story, the girls remain as mysterious and unattainable as ever, more so in death. The Lisbons' straight-laced religious parents -- Kathleen Turner as the overbearing matriarch, and James Woods as the ineffectual father -- go into protective overdrive after their youngest daughter commits suicide, which only seems to drive the girls further into despair and alienation from their peers. Josh Hartnett gives the best performance of his career as the swaggering adolescent playboy Trip Fontaine, the object of Lux’s (and the suburbs female population) affections; his entrance to the film, a model strut down the high school halls, to Heart’s "Magic Man," never fails to set our hearts a-flutter. However Trip ends up being the catalyst of the girls ultimate undoing, as Lux flaunts her curfew for a cursed tryst on the football field, the girls are shut in their house by their parents, with seemingly no means of escape, except, well you know...  French duo Air provide the darkly mesmerising score, complimenting the '70s hits (from 10cc to ELO) to great effect, while the picket-fence suburban setting serves as stark contrast to the violence of the story. Coppola manages to imbue the film with an enviable nostalgic haze, while also managing to breath some sense of life into the girls, beyond the romantic pedestal the boys memories have placed them on. [A]

Donnie Darko

"Donnie Darko" (2001)
Is it a bona fide high school movie? Probably not, but the portrayal of the American high school in Richard Kelly’s creepy, cyclical debut “Donnie Darko” warrants mention here if only because of how neatly it skewers so many of the genre’s conventions to paint a dark portrait of school life that stands in direct counterpoint to many of the shinier, happier versions we list here. Donnie’s high school is a place of tedium and tyrannical conformity, where false idols are worshipped and any spark of inspiration or creativity is snuffed out by the forces of ultra-conservatism. It is an institution that can find no time for Donnie’s weird intelligence and so it morphs, as he unravels, into a hallucinatory, dread-filled place populated with monsters real and imagined: the opposite of the cossetted haven of prom night jitters and popularity contests that having a school-going protagonist usually involves. Here, the teachers who are not dangerously misguided are ineffectual and helpless, the drive to conformity grotesque and soul-destroying and long before the story of doom plays itself out, the school is seen to be something you might want to escape from, to try and survive, rather than a place of learning or potential fulfillment. What “Donnie Darko” may share with other films on this list is a scabrous disdain for the unimaginative incomprehension of the adult world, especially as contrasted with the resilience, intelligence and ultimate nobility of its youthful protagonist. That all this finishes up darker than dark, and ends on the most nihilistic note imaginable, is one of the many ways it differs. “Donnie Darko” may be a psychological, timebending, horror movie, but more terrifying than all the evil, bloodied, doomsaying bunnies in the world, is the soul-crushing high school, as personified by Donnie’s health teacher in all her steely self-righteousness and fanatical zeal. The line, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” as delivered by the great Beth Grant? Now that’s creepy. [A]

Elephant

Elephant” (2003)
Gus Van Sant's minimalistic, meditative take on the Columbine High School massacre likely owes just as much to the director's own high school experience as it does to Bela Tarr and Alan Clarke. The movie's multiple and varied perspectives -- ranging from a football player dealing with an accidental pregnancy to a quiet girl with undisclosed body issues -- all take on their own interpretation of the events unfolding in their own distinct ways, with each narrative weaving in and out of each other effortlessly. Movies centered in a high school have a tendency to go out of their way to make things exciting -- every day captured is an event, with either quirky teachers or malevolent principals that are the bane of the protagonist's existence. Nostalgia-fueled reflections can have that effect on one's memories; where did those mundane weeks consisting of little but walking to and from class go? It's likely they blended into one another: somehow, an amusing lunch quip suddenly found itself taking place the same day a teacher blew up at a classmate. Of course, this is the kind of material that makes these moments a valid slice of commercial entertainment, and there's a time and place for them. Still, there's something to be said for the other side of the coin; portraying the realism of a typical high school day, going through the banal daily routine until that final bell rings and the shackles are off. To our knowledge, Van Sant's movie gives the most true interpretation of those years. By focusing on the endless bland hallways and repetitive days, it helps set a tone that makes the impending threat even more profoundly unsettling. [A]

Mean Girls

"Mean Girls" (2004)
With the genre increasingly tired in the mid '00s, it would take a real comic force to shake up the high school movie, but fortunately, Paramount had Tina Fey, the head writer of "Saturday Night Live," who penned a film that holds the same value for twentysomethings today that John Hughes's films did a generation beforehand. That's not actually a fair comparison, it should be said: Fey's going first and foremost for laughs, and they come in spades, thanks to a just-this-side-of-cartoonish tone established by director Mark Waters, and a cast that didn't just include Fey and SNL pals like Amy Poehler (only seven years older than screen daughter Rachel McAdams) and Tim Meadows, but also sharp comic creations from the likes of McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, Amanda Seyfried and, yes, Lindsay Lohan, who shows so much promise here that it's a little heartbreaking to watch now. The film falters when it has to take anything seriously -- has there ever been a teen love interest duller than the one here? -- but it remains a gut-buster nearly a decade on, and one with some smart points to make about the sociology of high school. [B]

Friday Night Lights

"Friday Night Lights" (2004)
Somewhat overshadowed now by its acclaimed TV spin-off (also directed and produced by Peter Berg, whose cousin H.G. Bissinger penned the best-selling non-fiction book on which both were based), at the time, "Friday Night Lights" felt like a breath of fresh air for the high school football movie. Keeping close to real events, Berg's cast of characters, from paternal Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) to terribly injured running back Booby Miles (Derek Luke) feel snatched from life, in part thanks to the director's hugely effective documentary-style approach to the events. Few of the events feel revelatory -- from quarterback Mike's (Lucas Black) crisis of confidence to fullback Don's (Garret Hedlund) borderline abusive relationship with his father (a surprisingly excellent Tim McGraw), it's been seen before. But it had rarely, if ever, been given the kind of raw truthfulness that Berg and his excellent cast deliver here. Berg never over-eggs or sentimentalizes, leading to a climax (including a final speech that might represent Thornton's finest bit of screen acting) that's uplifting without being manipulative. [B+]

"Brick."
"Brick."

Brick” (2006)
Rian Johnson pulled off a ballsy gamble with his debut film, crossbreeding a high school drama with a hardboiled detective story and managing to not only find authenticity in the concoction but enrapture the viewer with believable drama. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt digging deep and coming up with the kind of promise that has made him a hot property) is on the trail of his reclusive flame Emily (Emilie de Ravin), who he quickly finds has turned up dead. His continued quest to discover her killer leads him into the fray of a gang war between a drug kingpin (Lukas Haas) and his turncoat muscle (Noah Fleiss). Let’s stop for a moment -- if you haven’t seen the film, this is all the summary you’re going to get. Now let’s get to the heart of the matter. Johnson, who wrote the film, gives his cast marble-mouthed, noir sizzled dialogue that feels like a balancing act whenever uttered, builds a twisty plot and even manages to find room for intelligent humor in contrasting the fact that these are still children, adolescents scratching their heads over things frequently beyond comprehension. The beauty of it is that we feel for Brendan, and the emotional stakes build and build, as a quiet storm rises and eventually boils over, in true noir style. [A-]

Easy A

"Easy A" (2010)
The meta-teen movie is a more recent invention, featuring characters that are aware of high school flicks past, and Will Gluck's "Easy A," a very loose reworking of "The Scarlet Letter," is the kind of film where the protoganists dream of being wooed like girls and guys in John Hughes'  films. It might sound insufferable, but in fact, "Easy A" was a delight, thanks to a sharp-as-a-knife script from playwright Bert V. Royal, and an endlessly endearing lead performance from Emma Stone. As Olive Prendergast, Stone is awkwardly winning, and gifted with supernaturally good comic timing, so it's no surprise that she's on her way to becoming a megastar. Plus, in Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, she has arguably the greatest screen parents in the history of the genre. The film falters a little at the end, dipping into the moralistic milieu that it's been satirizing for much of the running time, but it remains the freshest, funniest high school picture of the last few years. [B+]

Honorable Mentions: While our definition of "high school movie" is already a little loose ("Say Anything," for instance, takes place mostly in the period just after high school graduation, but it feels like such a high school movie in spirit that we let it slide), there were a few films we couldn't quite allow. For instance, we decided that high school kept it in the U.S, disqualifying films like "Flirting" and "If..." Similarly, we just weren't sure teen rebel movies like "Rebel Without A Cause" and "The Outsiders" spent enough time in the hallways to properly qualify, just as "Splendor In The Grass" doesn't really either.

Elsewhere, we decided not to let John Hughes dominate, so we excluded the likes of "Pretty In Pink" and "Sixteen Candles." Other films that couldn't quite get enough supporters to make the list included "Lucas," "Better Off Dead," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Cry Baby," "Hairspray," "Pump Up The Volume" and, more recently "O," "Bring It On," "10 Things I Hate About You," "She's All That" and "Not Another Teen Movie." Finally, we'd have loved to include Frederick Wiseman's seminal 1968 documentary "High School," but couldn't find a copy in time. Any of your own favorites that we've missed? Weigh in below.

- Oliver Lyttelton, Erik McClanahan, Christopher Bell, Sam Chater, RP, Kimber Myers, Jessica Kiang, Mark Zhuravsky

This article is related to: Features, 21 Jump Street


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