For some, high school sucked. For others, high school rocked. One thing people in these two camps have in common is that they will never forget high school. In the years that follow graduation, everyone looks back in disbelief at their high school years. Yes, you did wear those unfashionable clothes; yes, you did have a crush on that contemptible person; yes, you really were part of an exclusive clique; and yes, that teacher was out to lunch. But if high school seems like it took place in an alternate reality, disconnected from time and space as we know it, no one can deny that high school has a formative impact on everyone.
In cinema, high school films reached their acme in the eighties, when the late John Hughes took a still-undeveloped genre and made it into a serious one. Of course, before John Hughes, films like Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle were hugely popular, and, arguably, ignited viewers’ interest in film narratives about high school. However, many pre-1980 high school films tell stories about seditious youth and the teachers who try to mold them into morally upstanding individuals. As opposed to exploring the psyches of these troubled youths, these films take teenage rebellion at face value, with little interest in the underlying causes. John Hughes, however, crafted narratives that delve deeper into the minds of teenagers, narratives that explore the vicissitudes of being a teenager and the attendant anxieties and doubts. In The Breakfast Club, for instance, Hughes undermines the classic types in high school films, as he shows that jocks, nerds, and princesses are not that different from one another. Each is not a type, but a complex individual. Because of John Hughes, high school films hold a special place in cinema, a serious genre full of profound narratives.
In recent years, teenage life around the world, especially in North America, has considerably changed. The ubiquity of cell phones and the internet has fundamentally altered the way teenagers see the world, socialize, and react to one another. Moreover, bleak job prospects and economic realities face teenagers, and, as a result, teenagers are more attuned now to the necessity of accumulating capital. This might be an overblown appraisal, but it should be noted that teenagers cannot live insouciantly like the past generations. It is too early to tell whether or not this seismic shift in teenage life will alter young adult life and so on, but it does mean that narratives about teenagers have to rethink the established paradigm.
Nevertheless, in honour of an increasingly effete teenage life, this list looks at ten classic high school films. These films range from the fifties to the early 2000s, and they all have their respective merits. This list is by no means exhaustive, so let us know your favourite films about high school. One last note about the list: it has not considered social-problem films, so notable films like Boyz ‘N the Hood have been left off.
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10 Dazed and Confused (1993)
Directed by the masterful Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused is one of the most unabashed films about high school. With an ensemble cast that features the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Joey Lauren Adams, amongst others, the film tells the story of juniors celebrating their last day of high school before summer and their subsequent final year. It is set in a fictional small town in the late seventies. Unlike many high school films, Dazed does not try to be didactic; it recognizes that there are cliques and rivalries, but it celebrates the teenage joie de vivre. Intermittently, however, the film touches upon teenage angst and uncertainty, as the characters consider their own desires against the expectations of adults. This film should not be missed.
9 The Breakfast Club (1985)
As mentioned, John Hughes is the mind behind The Breakfast Club, and the film is certainly his magnum opus. The film begins with several students entering their school desultorily on a Saturday. The audience soon learns that the students, who are all part of disparate social circles in their school, are serving detention for their respective infractions. Slowly, these once-contentious students develop bonds across seemingly unbridgeable social chasms, and they discover that they are rather similar and not so different after all. The narrative reaches its climax when the students share their admissions of what they did to land themselves in detention. Tears are shed, and egos are jettisoned in a very powerful scene. The film’s achievement is its honest treatment of teenage life.
8 Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
No list of high school films would be complete without Rebel Without a Cause. The late James Dean stars in this film about an obstreperous teenager who enters a new high school and has to deal with the attendant vagaries. The narrative does a good job of depicting the precarious relationships between parents and children, but it does contain a good deal of artlessness, which, of course, is a reflection of the time in which this film was made. While James Dean plays the hyper-masculine protagonist who woos the girl, Sal Mineo plays a feckless character with an ambiguous sexuality. These are the kind of caricatures that a film like The Breakfast Club undercuts.
7 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Another classic from John Hughes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an unforgettable high school film from the eighties. The premise is simple: Ferris, the film’s shrewd, yet underachieving protagonist, fakes illness to avoid going to school and spends a day cavorting around town with his girlfriend and best friend. At first glance, the film seems void of any significance, but it really captures the way that teenagers see and think. For instance, in a transient shot, Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend looks admiringly at Ferris and tells herself that Ferris will love her forever. She is a junior, and Ferris is a senior on his way to college, so the relationship is likely doomed. As the film suggests, in high school, everything seems bigger than it really is.
6 Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Similar to Dazed, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a film with a star-studded cast, and it does an excellent job of dramatizing the vicissitudes of life in high school. Unlike the characters in a John Hughes film, the characters in Fast Times do not undergo significant changes over the course of the narrative. However, the narrative is glutted with important issues that face teenagers—from holding down a part-time job to losing one’s virginity to contentious teachers. The film is not preachy or moralistic; rather, it gives a snapshot of teenage life in the eighties.
5 Pretty in Pink (1986)
Ostensibly, 1986 was a great year for John Hughes, as he released Ferris Bueller’s and Pretty in Pink. While Ferris Bueller’s is irreverent and whimsical, Pretty in Pink is serious and solemn. Molly Ringwald’s character, Andie Walsh, is poor girl whom the fashionable rich girls always disparage. Duckie, who is played by Jon Cryer, is infatuated with Andie, and he will do anything to woo her. Andie, though, is attracted to the rich kid, Blane. The narrative, then, is about teenage love: the heartaches, the overblown infatuations, and the electric highs. Few high school films deal poignantly with the contention between affluence and indigence like Pretty in Pink, and the film is commendable for exploring the issues that face teenagers who transgress their socioeconomic circles.
4 Say Anything… (1989)
Say Anything… is the film that popularized John Cusack as the loveable misfit. John Cusack plays Lloyd Dobbler opposite Ione Skye, who plays Diane Court. Like Pretty in Pink, the two main characters come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but that does not stop them from falling in love. Diane’s father disapproves of the relationship, but Lloyd obstinately and sentimentally pursues Diane. The film climaxes with one of the most memorable moments in the history of high school films: Lloyd, in a desperate attempt to win Diane back, stands outside her house, holding a stereo above his head that blasts music. The film isn’t cloying, though, as it ends with a moment of uncertainty between Lloyd and Diane, a scene reminiscent of The Graduate and one that leaves viewers on an ambiguous note.
3 Mean Girls (2004)
When it was released was in 2004, Mean Girls surprised filmgoers with its sophisticated take on teenage life. Lindsay Lohan plays Cady Heron, a teenager trying to fit into a new high school. The premise seems trite, but the narrative is full of surprises. Indeed, the film explores how young women view themselves and compete with other women. Perhaps the film is off the mark in its treatment of these issues, but it does try to put forth a notion of the mutability of beauty. That is to say, the film argues that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Also, it should be noted that this film was one of the last high school films released before cell phones became pervasive. It is, then, a snapshot of a bygone era.
2 Clueless (1995)
In one word, Clueless is fun. Indeed, the film tells the story of Cher, a rich girl in Los Angeles who has a tough time seeing beyond her narrow social circle. The film is actually a loose adaptation of a classic Jane Austen novel, but it’s more appealing for its sometimes genuine, sometimes ironic depiction of contemporary rich kids in Los Angeles. As the narrative progresses, audiences who were initially alienated by Cher’s lifestyle learn that Cher’s problems are no different from a typical teenager’s. And it is tough to be contemptuous of Cher, as she always wants to make things right. The film will make you laugh and surprise you with its heartfelt moments.
1 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Like Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You is another loose depiction of a classic work—this time: Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Julia Stiles plays the “shrew,” an abrasive girl who deplores the hopes and dreams of the girls at her high school. Through her sister’s dastardly plans, Kat (Stiles) unexpectedly falls for the school’s resident reprobate, Patrick (Heath Ledger). Piquant moments pervade this film, and it deals admirably with the vicissitudes of teenage life. In the end, the film is enjoyable for the right reasons, as it delivers the hodge-podge of emotions that define high school.
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