September is here, and school is back in session. Whether you’re a brave parent educating kiddos at home, a heroic teacher making your lessons work both in-person and virtually, or a student yourself, there’s some solace knowing that any first-day jitters and pop-quiz anxiety has been felt by innumerable people, both real and fictitious. These experiences are so universal, in fact, that they’re as relatable to the students of a secondary school in Paris as they are to the poetry-loving attendees of a boarding school in New England — adolescence is difficult no matter where you’re enrolled.
You may notice that several of your favorite high school flicks are absent here, and there’s a simple reason for their omission: the actual school experience shown was only incidental to the plot. So while the likes of Heathers, Clueless, Dazed and Confused, and Can’t Hardly Wait all get an “A” as teen cinema, they feature so few scenes on campus that they don’t quite belong here. Pack a lunch, read the syllabus, and get extra credit for watching every movie on this list.
To Sir, With Love (1967)
You’re probably familiar with Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and other key entries in the inspirational-teacher canon. To Sir, With Love doesn’t have the name recognition of those films with younger generations, but it does have Sidney Poitier in one of his best, most overlooked performances — not to mention a banger of a theme song by Lulu, a Socttish singer who made her screen debut in the film (she went on to win Eurovision two years later). Poitier plays an educator from British Guiana brought in to teach an unruly bunch of students in London's East End who have as much to learn about life as they do about algebra. Helping establish a genre that has since become old hat (but feels fresh and invigorating here), the students teach their teacher a thing or two as well.
Many teens consider high school a nightmare, but few have it as bad as poor, telekinetic Carrie. The first silver-screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel remains one of the best more than four decades later, thanks in large part to Sissy Spacek’s haunting performance in the title role. A certain prom scene involving pig blood gets most of the attention, but it’s the early sequences detailing Carrie’s torment at the hands of her peers — to say nothing of the mental abuse the girl’s mother (Piper Laurie, who, like Spacek, received an Oscar nomination for her performance) inflicts on her — that most upsets on subsequent viewings.
Whether you consider yourself a T-Bird or a Pink Lady, a single viewing of Grease is all it takes to see why it’s one of the all-time-great movies of its kind. Building on John Travolta’s breakthrough in Saturday Night Fever and introducing movie audiences to Olivia Newton-John, the musical (based, of course, on the smash Broadway success) offers a romanticized vision of high school that most freshmen soon learned was not reality. But that’s part of its charm, as well as why Grease has endured for nearly half a century: there’s nothing quite like it, whether in the real world or on the big screen.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
There’s a reason Fast Times at Ridgemont High feels so authentic in its depiction of the high-school experience: Author Cameron Crowe spent a full year undercover to write his book (and then screenplay) of the same name. Amy Heckerling, who later directed Clueless, adapted Fast Times as only a filmmaker of her caliber could — though it certainly helped that the ensemble cast included Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, and other rising stars like Forest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates, and Nicolas Cage. With a pitch-perfect soundtrack accompanying the surprisingly heavy proceedings — a major subplot involves an unplanned pregnancy — the film is both emblematic of its era and, in its own way, timeless.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which this story of “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal” has resonated with generations of teenagers — even if star Molly Ringwald herself has had trouble reckoning with the legacy of her collaborations with John Hughes in general and The Breakfast Club in particular (and it would behoove fans of this high school classic to also take a closer look). However, Hughes wrote, directed, and produced the film on a $1 million budget, a pittance that earned more than 50 times that at the box office and made its Brat Pack ensemble (also including Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, and Judd Nelson) into stars. Few movies have so poignantly captured what it’s like to feel out of place among your classmates as you struggle to forge your own identity, a process made infinitely more difficult by hormones, peer pressure, and assistant principals trying to figure out the source of that ruckus.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Even the best movies about school tend to focus on the hallways, lunchrooms, and football fields, but Dead Poets Society is unique in this genre in that it emphasizes not only the classroom, but an unabashed appreciation of the lessons taught. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world,” the poetry quoting teacher played by Robin Williams tells his cohort of prep school boys. It would be difficult to count how many young viewers were first exposed to the work of Whitman, Thoreau, and Tennyson by this sensitive classic, but who doesn’t instinctively want to stand on a desk when they hear “O Captain, My Captain!”?
Wes Anderson’s sophomore effort as a writer/director takes place at a private school where our one-of-a-kind protagonist, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), has numerous extracurricular activities to his name despite being one of the worst students at Rushmore Academy. The film features standout performances from Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, and Seymour Cassel. Among its many other merits, Rushmore features the most elaborate play-within-a-movie you’ll ever see: a Vietnam war scene complete with live trees, flamethrowers, and Max and his company repelling into a jungle battle while mortars explode onstage. Just your typical Anderson school play.
Before Legally Blonde, Walk the Line, and Big Little Lies, Reese Witherspoon put on a bravura performance in Election. She plays Tracy Flick, an ambitious high-school senior running unopposed for student body president — that is, until a meddling teacher (Matthew Broderick) recruits a considerably more popular football player (Chris Klein) to throw his hat in the ring. Things get increasingly Machiavellian from there, with the contest’s disputed results offering a preview of what was to come in the following year’s presidential race; through all of it, the film demonstrates that classroom politics are no less cutthroat than those at the national level.
Mean Girls (2004)
“Fetch” may never happen, but Mean Girls is here to stay. As beloved by millennials as Grease is by baby boomers, this first-rate comedy written by Tina Fey abounds with memorable lines (“That’s why her hair is so big — it’s full of secrets”) and zany supporting characters who manage to steal scenes from Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, and Fey herself. The 2000s weren’t a high point for the genre — especially compared to all the standouts released in the '80s and '90s — making Mean Girls especially important to those dealing with high school in a post-Columbine, post-9/11 world.
The Class (2008)
The Class is less well-known in the States, but obviously teens abroad have the same angst as American ones. The credentials for this film are hard to argue with: Laurent Cantet’s adaptation of the novel by François Bégaudeau won the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or, a prize shared by everything from Apocalypse Now and Pulp Fiction to Blue Is the Warmest Color and Parasite; it also received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Following a young teacher (played by Bégaudeau himself) and his secondary-school students in Paris over the course of a single year, The Class touches on issues of race, class, and academia in a way that’s at once specific to its milieu and universal.
Featured image credit: Pixabay/ Pexels