Here we are. Labor Day Weekend. For those lucky enough not to be in school yet, this is the last hurrah of freedom before we get plunged into the maelstrom that is the school year. I haven’t really paid attention to the start of the school year since I finished grad school but this year is different. My precious little baby of a child has somehow gotten old enough for preschool, and she starts next week which seems impossible. And given my general unpreparedness for it, my coping mechanism is naturally going to be running to the movies. Since I’m going to be bingeing a bunch of school movies over the next week or so, I figure I might as well make a list about them while I’m at it. But first, some rules:
- School has to be one of the main themes of the movie. The story can’t be about people who just happen to be students. I want to see school halls, class rooms, gyms, bleachers, and school fields. We need jocks and cheerleaders, bullies and geeks. Ideally the school of the movie almost becomes a character in itself. For instance, The Goonies does deal heavily with school-age kids but the main point of the movie is the treasure hunting adventure they go on not their academic careers so it doesn’t qualify.
- Because they are a category onto itself, I’m removing all sports related school movies (Hoosiers, Hoop Dreams, Friday Nighy Lights, Rudy etc.)
- The movie may end in a graduation or be centred around said graduation, but there should not be a narrative focus on a student’s post-graduation life. To clarify: under this rule Dazed and Confused is eligible but Ghost World is not.
Honourable Mentions: Back to the Future, Clueless, Dazed and Confused, Edge of Seventeen, Mean Girls, Say Anything…
(Author’s Note: As with any updated lists on this website, new movies inserted do not knock out older entries, instead the Top 10 simply becomes a Top 11, Top 20 becomes Top 21 and so on, so forth)
11. ELECTION (1999) dir. Alexander Payne
Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is absolute perfection. Unfortunately she is the kind of perfection that makes it extremely easy to despise her. She has the right answer for every question, she runs in all the most important circles, and she has the (entirely correct) gall to assume that she fully deserves to be student president. Deciding to take her down a peg is her teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) who sees it as his righteous duty to make sure that her smug confidence and presumptions are not rewarded. In the hands of a lesser director, this would be the agitprop setup for a simple morality tale about humbleness and right living. But fortunately Alexander Payne has the wisdom to muddy up the waters so that, much like our current presidential elections, the contest between the two devolves to a case of siding with the person you hate the least as the two scheme and maneuver their way around each other in hilarious and horrifying fashion. In the end it is a not-so-pleasant reminder that politics is usually just a petty and ugly affair no matter at what level it happens.
10. CARRIE (1976) dir. Brian De Palma
The only thing surprising about the high school horror movie Carrie is that nobody before had thought to use the experience of high school as a metaphor for horror before. If you are popular, conventional, talented, and well-liked high school is a wonderful and life-affirming experience but if you don’t fall into those categories it becomes a dangerous minefield fraught with numerous opportunities for harm, whether physical or psychological. And no movie captures that reality better than Carrie as the shy, repressed, and frequently bullied Carrie White struggles to navigate the minefield that is high school and teenage life. In fact she would be like so many students we once knew if not for one key difference, her latent and uncontrolled telekinesis. And the genius of this movie is that as the movie builds to its explosive climax, you not only recoil in terror at what is going down but a little part of you cheers as well. For if there was a crown for the queen of freaks, geeks, outcasts, and the bullied, Carrie White would be its rightful owner.
9. DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989) dir. Peter Weir
Perhaps this pick is going to seem predictable, but there was no question that Mr. Keating was going to find his way here. When Robin Williams passed away three years ago I didn’tmourned because I had lost the Genie from Aladdin or Peter Pan from Hook. But I mourned because I lost Mr. Keating, who without exaggeration has had more influence on my life decisions than all other movie characters combined. He was the first adult who wasn’t my parent who let me know that learning was good for its own worth, that curiosity about the world was a virtue, and that more than anything else life will be more beautiful if you are honest about your passions and pursue it. Dead Poets Society also taught me the sobering reality that not everybody will want that, value that, and more than likely are going to be threatened by that. But pursue it anyway. The day I saw this movie – back when I was barely in grade school – was the day I decided I was going to college and embrace being a nerd, and for that reason alone has to be one of the best movies about school ever made. Carpe diem baby.
8. PITCH PERFECT (2012) dir. Jason Moore
In my sophomore year in college I ended up working in my college chapel with a team of fellow students. We ended up bonding pretty well, getting up to various shenanigans that drove our supervisors only slightly insane, and I ended up dating and eventually marrying one of them. I tell you this piece of my fascinating backstory because it just dawned on me that this is probably the reason why I’m so in love with Pitch Perfect. Had it come out a few years earlier, an acapella group would be exactly the kind of music-nerdy but life-bonding shenanigans we would have gotten ourselves into. Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) and her fellow Bellas find each other through the unlikely pursuit of acapella perfection as they navigate the cuththroat world of competitive collegiate acapella. But while the acapella is the awesome window dressing of this movie the heart is friendship, and particularly the kind of friendship that you develop in college when you are on the brink of adulthood but still not quite old enough to forget how to be kids. There is an inherent silliness to this series that dares to suggest acapella could be cool, but this is part of its charm and it reminds me of my fondest days of college. So yeah, I’m going to be obsessed with Pitch Perfect for a long, long, time. Dear reader, you better just get aca-used to it because the movie is aca-mazing.
7. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004) dir. Alfonso Cuaron
There was no way that a film franchise about a wizard student that has grossed over 7 billion dollars worldwide was not going to get on this list. The only real question was which of the Harry Potter movies was going to make the list. In the end I decided to go with The Prisoner of Azkaban for several reasons. First, this is the best film in the franchise in my opinion that successfully pivoted the series from being a throwaway children’s movie into the successful young adult series it would become. But this is also the last movie to focus solely on the magic school of Hogwarts as each successive film will increasingly become more global in scale. Between the addition of Hagrid as a school teacher and Harry’s close relationship with the new defense-of-the-arts teacher Lupin, this is arguably the movie that focuses the most on actual student life. The addition of the Marauder’s Map and Hermione’s Time Turner also shines the spotlight on Hogwarts, one of the truly great fictional schools.
6. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975) dir. Peter Weir
An all-girls private school gets ready on St. Valentine’s day for a school trip to Hanging Rock at the turn of the 20th century. All goes well until in an almost trancelike state four girls and one of their teachers walk amongst the mysterious rocks and disappear. One student returns but the rest are never seen again. The mystery of what happens scandalizes the small and sleepy Australian town but (spoiler-alert) director Peter Weir never gets anywhere close to explaining what happens. This sets up the disappearance to be a haunting backdrop to explore issues of mass hysteria and sexual repression as theories ranging from the salacious to the mystical are suggested for why these girls vanished. The great strength of this movie is that because it is shot in a hallucinatory manner, all these theories can sit side by side with one another. It is simultaneously an exploration of womanhood, colonization, repression, and power that raises a plethora of question but is never so cheap as to suggest any answers.
5. LADY BIRD (2017) dir. Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig’s debut film follows the well-worn trail of movies about oddball teenagers struggling to find their place in the world. What makes this movie stand out from the pack however is the incredible intelligence Gerwig brings to the script and direction so that the movie never falls into cliche, the exceptional cast – led by Saiorse Ronan as Lady Bird – who provide complex and compelling performances that make it difficult to cast anyone as hero or villain, and the film’s remarkable commitment to an authentic portrayal of teenage life with its messiness and sometimes less-than-profound process of coming-of age. It is funny without being farcical, truthful without being preachy, and touching without ever venturing into the saccharine. In other words, it is a perfect little movie.
4. DIABOLIQUE (1955) dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
Hang around a school long enough, and it starts to look a little sinister. It seems almost a tradition that every school has some ghost haunting some corridor or room, and the tale of it gets passed from senior to freshman. Diabolique is simply another eerie continuation of that tradition. This is the movie that Alfred Hitchcock desperately wanted to make but got beaten to it by Henri-Georges Clouzot. The story of is deceptively simple, about a boorish school master of a second-rate boarding school, his timid and abused wife who happens to own the school, a teacher who is his former lover, and a plot to get away with murder. The tension of this movie builds the moment the body seemingly vanishes and the murder investigation begins. The dilapidated school suddenly becomes more sinister as whispers and shadows of ghosts appears, and investigators come closer and closer to the truth. It is a satisfying whodunit tale that draws you in as much as it terrifies. As Clouzot famously implores audiences in the final frame not to reveal the ending, you will not find me threatening to spoil it. But as schoolyard tales go, it’s a doozy.
3. WHIPLASH (2014) dir. Damien Chazelle
The power of Whiplash is that it captures perfectly the desperate and unique push that most college students face. College represents the first time when college students are solely responsible for their ability to succeed in the future based on their decisions, efforts, output, and motivations. While most college movies focus on students who try their best to live in denial of that reality (Animal House being the most poignant example) Whiplash is unique in focusing on a student who understands this reality so perfectly that it becomes his only obsession. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a first year drum student at a music conservatory who religiously shapes his life and literally bleeds to perfect his craft to set himself on the path of success. He eschews all other social relationships for this goal. Amazingly he finds an intense and acerbic instructor (J. K. Simmons) who somehow thinks that Neiman’s dedication is pathetically low. The titanic conflict between the two is explosive, acerbic, and compelling. And as the conflict between the two of them grows, the movie becomes the perfect externalization of the internal pressures of being a college student.
2. THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985) dir. John Hughes
The brain. The athlete. The princess. The basket-case. The criminal. Some movies deserve to be here because they are such obvious and unsurprising choices and that certainly is the case with John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club. The movie’s greatness is found in its simplicity. Five students from completely different cliques in the school forced to spend one Saturday morning in detention for different reasons. Faced with a common foe in their principal, who has written them off, they find themselves forced to join together and realize that they are not so dissimilar after all. The movie still resonates more than thirty years because it is painfully honest about the anxieties and fears of high school life. The strength of this movie is that it understands, reflects, and embodies exactly how complicated and nerve-wrecking it is to be a teenager. Perhaps the only question is how this somehow ended up only at number 2. But fear not because at number 1 is:
1. RUSHMORE (1998) dir. Wes Anderson
Max Fischer (Jason Scwartzman) is a legend. He is a horrible student, but excels in every extracurricular activity he takes part in. He is oozing in self-confidence, ambitious to a fault, and his eccentricities make him both magnificently overqualified for his age group’s intelligence and woefully unprepared for anything resembling real life. In the hands of Wes Anderson, this is an effortless and darkly humorous coming-of-age tale about a remarkable individual. And by being the only movie on this list to include both private and public schools, it encompasses the entirety of the American high school experience. Sort of.
Also it has Bill Murray, and everything is better with Bill Murray.