Sweet Sixteen Films About High School
According to a quick Google search, March 31st is National Prom Day. Seeing that the coveted high school event takes place between February and March, we can also acknowledge that the final months in a senior student’s life are upon them. I don’t know about you, but mine were underwhelming. Maybe being a cinephile in this instance is a curse, because the uses of high schools and teenagers in films are used so efficiently. These are remarks on maturation, the longing of our youths, and the turning points where we have to make leaps and never look back. As a result, many high school films are dazzling. Many high school films are frightening. Many are hyper real. To try and capitalize on National Prom Day (at the tail end of prom season), and look ahead at the final months of one’s teenage years as they know it, here are sixteen great films about high school (it had to be sixteen to make it authentically high-school-based).
16. American Graffiti
The only non-science fiction film George Lucas ever dominated a box office with, American Graffiti is a what-if scenario for the franchise-specific director. Here we have a meandering, fleeting experience of a final-night-out that takes place in the heart of the ‘60s (at the cusp where the very last dregs of the ‘50s are still sprinkled all over). If only we could have seen this side of Lucas more often.
Between Jason Reitman’s heartfelt direction, and Diablo Cody’s super smart screenplay, Juno is a coming-of-age film for the ages. With a very modern approach to teenage pregnancy, and the ultimate encapsulation of the ‘00s indie-film movement, this film was trendy. Its relevancy is important, because it was a fresh film for parents and their teenage children to bond over.
14. Bye Bye Birdie
This underrated teen flick involves the iconic status of a rock star, and the impact on the youth of America one beloved legend can have. The next generation somehow defines the current generation. A famous face can bulldoze every household. With Janet Leigh, and the cinematic debut of Dick Van Dyke, Bye Bye Birdie now resonates as a cementing of familiar faces in a whole new light.
13. Pretty in Pink
We have to have at least two John Hughes films here (one directed by him, and one at least written by him). This falls in the latter category, where Howard Deutch's direction brings an authentic teenage experience to a bizarre love triangle. Between Harry Dean Stanton’s heartbreaking portrayal of a struggling father, and the fashionable presences Molly Ringwald, John Cryer and company bring, Pretty in Pink is an ‘80s high school love letter personified.
12. The Virgin Suicides
High school (in cinema, anyways) defines a legacy. With Sofia Coppola’s vision comes The Virgin Suicides: an examination of identity. Sisters that are smothered by the conservative nature of their parents have become the objects of fascination to a flock of male buddies. Is it the innocence? Is it the necessity to rebel against it? This is the effort to figure out oneself, and try to understand others, too.
11. The Spectacular Now
Featuring two super-real performances by Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now is the hazy memory of the smushed-in discoveries at the very end of a high school term. Clouded by alcohol and familial issues, this is the recollection of memories as a means to hang on to something that was pure. The heart races to catch up with time in this under-watched gem.
10. Rebel Without a Cause
First off, we of course have a performance by James Dean in his way-too-short career. Secondly, we have a battle against the squeaky-clean Hollywood of the ‘50s. The film is anchored by the tension within one’s self (because of the lack of certainty within their own roles). Rebel Without a Cause dares to depict a young man with major regrets that causes a rift with his loved ones (and his past, as a result).
9. The Breakfast Club
So there’s the John Hughes directed film. What makes The Breakfast Club resonate with so many audiences, is that it contains a whole cast of different kids together (rather than the usual trend of having different cliques keep their distances). Now, we can view the film in a new light, as a timestamp of what the ‘80s were like (through the eyes of a disgruntled teenager, anyways).
8. Say Anything…
It was always a dream for us high school recluses to finally be recognized. In Say Anything…, the underdog somehow wins the lottery, and becomes acquainted with the valedictorian in the summer after high school has wrapped up. That educational boundary is shattered. We can refresh our own roles in society. This is a chance, where the window of opportunity is way too short to react rationally (college is coming up), but isn’t that just how life is after high school?
Who can forget this horror flick? Possibly the greatest Stephen King adaptation of all time, Carrie is the disturbing culmination of daily bullying, an overbearing mother, and the beginning of the titular character’s first menstrual cycle. With her newly discovered psychic powers, Carrie White personifies the many anxieties of a young teenage girl living the gruesome high school experience.
It’s funny how much the youth of today are so distanced from adult issues, and yet they are also more connected than they might think. In Alexander Payne’s first smash hit Election, everything within the high school matters in its own juvenile universe. However, so much of it reflects the way politics work in real life, yet here it seems so out-there. Featuring an enthusiastic performance by a then-newcomer Reese Witherspoon, Election is an excellent satire.
5. Blue Velvet
David Lynch loves to create love letters in his own way (not the kind Frank Booth delivers, of course). With Blue Velvet, this is his take on a John Hughes coming-of-age classic. We have the high school sweetheart, the first dance, everything. yet, through Lynch’s twisted lens, we experience a coming-of-age like no other: experiencing the absolute worst horrors of the real world first hand.
Here’s another satire. We have the hypothetical situation of one of the many “why-nots” teenagers may have dabbled in: why can’t we have power in the school yard? Well, Heathers takes it to the extreme, with the deadliest of plots to shed a clean-cut image. High school might seem like everything is the end of the world, and Michael Lehmann’s Heathers makes that a grim, idiosyncratic reality.
3. Hoop Dreams
It might seem a bit unusual to include a documentary, but you can argue that it’s actually essential. This documentary epic about two high school prospects captures the entire experience: the end game (making it as a professional basketball player), the struggle (familial and financial issues), and the many faces in between. Hoop Dreams is an emotional experience for sure, but it remains one of the great documentaries of the ‘90s.
Wes Anderson’s breakout film features some of his now-usual suspects (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Luke Wilson), and all of his signature style. Rushmore is a quirky look at the entire school experience. Max (a private school academic) longs for an elementary school teacher, who is also the object of affection for a much-older accomplished industrialist. This is a look-to-the-past and the future; a teenager in a confused state. It can’t get more Wes Anderson than this.
1. The Last Picture Show
When it comes to high school coming-of-age classics, it may not get better than this. You have a distancing of eras (a 1971 film about the ‘50s). You have a dying city that is on the verge of becoming a ghost town. This is it. This is the bleak future many teenagers do not face until much later. This is a bittersweet acknowledgement of the future. The passage into adulthood may have never been replicated better in cinematic history (when it comes to high school films, anyways).
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.