There are few things that incite nostalgic reminiscence like watching movies from your youth; maybe songs that you enjoyed with friends, vacation spots with family, or a scent memory of grandma's cooking can compete with that feeling. But a two hour escape from a reality you wished yourself whisked away from through the glory of a fantasy film is hard to top. Moreover, a movie about high school that you saw while your life was permeated by classes, pop-quizzes, teachers, best friends, and even coed enemies can capitalize on powerful memories and enrapture your mind, depositing your psyche to a time you either loved or hated (or had a love-hate relationship with).
Not all movies about high school are created equal. Some films that fit the mold do so with only a modicum of relation to the subject, appearing on the fringe, as a film whose characters just happen to be in high school and isn't actually about being in high school. Scream is a good example, as the movie is a horror flick involving high school kids but has few elements that inherently relate to being a high school student (beyond the feeling of being gutted like a fish when a teacher announces a pop-quiz in a class that you are barely passing already).
I did my best to stick to movies that encapsulate being a student in high school. Thus, I did not include the likes of Brick, Carrie, WarGames, or Weird Science (along with others). No Ferris either. (Sorry, but did you ever steal a car and end up singing in a parade on a day you skipped school? No? Ok, then shut up.) Those are all great movies of intertwined genres, but not quite what I am looking for for this list. After all, I'm a defiant, angsty teenager stuck in the failing body of an adult (-ish) person so I make my own rules.
Also, check out the extracurricular from the films soundtrack included with each movie. Some songs just attach themselves to a film so distinctly that they are as much a part of the narrative as the characters.
If you disagree, that's ok. We all had different childhoods and upbringings. I would hope that my list isn't your list, lest we've altogether missed the reason for making films.
If I end up on a distant planet and need to teach an alien race what high school is like on Earth (at least in the U.S.) these movies will be prerequisites to the course. I fully expect that race of beings to immediately sever all communication with our planet and pack up their rocket fueled wood-paneled station wagon and warp-drive their asses to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Because navigating interstellar travel is nothing compared to the social and political asteroid field that is high school.
From the top of the class to those that barely passed, here is my top ten.
10.) 10 Things I Hate About You
Yearbook Worthy Quote: "You're 18, you don't know what you want. And you won't know what you want 'til you're 45, and even if you get it, you'll be too old to use it."
Kat Stratford is a name that will never leave my sub-conscience. The Taming Of The Shrew with 90's post-adolescent vim and virility, with more than a dash of sibling rivalry (eventually overcome, of course), 10 Things is on the fringe of believability. But that doesn't deter from how affectionate it is. In the name of Bill Shakespeare, who will ever forget Heath Ledger crooning "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" to a skeptical Julia Stiles? Not you, and not I. But what drives this movie about high schoolers is the overt cynicism towards those very high schoolers and their "meaningless, consumer driven lives". It may be an adaptation of Shakespeare but I don't think the Honor's course level message is misread; it delivers without being overwhelming. Or underwhelming. It's just... whelmed. (Kudos to those who get that reference without the help of almighty Google).
Musical Extra Credit: Letters To Cleo - I Want You To Want Me (a cover of the Cheap Trick hit)
Yearbook Worthy Quote: "You know when you hear girls say 'Ah man, I was so shit-faced last night, I shouldn't have fucked that guy?' We could be that mistake!"
70's inspired clothes, graphics, and music? I dig it. Superbad is as infantile as Dead Poets Society is highbrow and I love it for that fact. Jonah Hill established himself as a comedic presence and the already affably dopey Michael Cera was the perfect addition to the new age, incredibly vulgar, Martin and Lewis. The back-and-forth banter is indicative of the friend-effacing dialogue that is pronounced in our current culture. Thick skin is necessary these days. Especially when you have no idea how the hell to impress a girl, or more importantly, how to proceed when you finally manage to do so. This movie is an impressionist painting about trying to get laid and making fun of your best friend while he tries to do the same. But that's friendship. And high school. Inappropriate and crass and specific to every conversation with your schoolmates that you hid from your parents - that's Superbad.
Musical Extra Credit: The Four Tops - Are You Man Enough
8.) Dead Poets Society
Yearbook Worthy Quote: basically every single line from Keating, but my personal favorite: (paraphrased) "Language was developed for one endeavor - to woo women."
I have always had an affinity for poetry. I used to think that poetry was easy. John Keating changed that opinion. More specifically, Robin William's John Keating changed that opinion. What other actor could have donned the suit of that perfectly imperfect affluent, educated, yet hippie-hearted, teacher the way Mork from Ork did? I say 'no one'. Dead Poets Society is astounding in its ability to conjure sympathy for rich, WASPy prep-school kids. But in that ability is the intrinsic sentiment that inspires a loyal devotion to this movie and its heartfelt, lovelorn, tragic characters. Ire towards those that are privileged is easy to facilitate - but the realization that economic status notwithstanding, all of us as teenagers feel inherent rebellion towards our patres familias coalesces our angst and makes it easier to carry that burden through those difficult years.
Musical Extra Credit: The Fields of Athenry (the Dubliners version is highly recommended)
7.) Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Yearbook Worthy Quote: "I woke up in a great mood; I don't know what the hell happened."
I don't know why Fast Times is so far down this list, but just go with it. I have no excuse but I don't need one, dear reader. My only mea culpa might be that I was only one year removed from my mother's womb when Spicoli surfed his way into the pants of American teenage girls and Judge Reinhold, as Brad Hamilton, worshipped Phoebe Cates' Linda Barrett. That red bikini is on par with Princess Leia's metal slave bikini. Yeah, I said it. Call me an iconoclast, but that scene can stand against the likes of Leia, Bo Derek in 10, and Ursula Andress in Dr. No., or any other two-piece offering. This movie should be required viewing for any woman with a pre-teen male adolescent. It explains... so much, so accurately.
Musical Extra Credit: The Cars - Drive. Obviously.
6.) Can't Hardly Wait
Yearbook Worthy Quote: "There is fate. But it only takes you so far, because once you're there, it's up to you to make it happen."
Sure, Can't Hardly Wait comes across as the film version of a high school sophomore: ineptly trying to find itself, stumbling around awkwardly in the midst of upperclassmen while pretending that it definitely totally has had sex (with a girl!), but completely overwhelmed, though its efforts find reception as endearing, almost adorable and then, as the Stripper Angel expounds her ethereal wisdom on fate, it becomes insightful. It can't be ignored that this movie isn't perfect, but neither is high school - at least for anyone who wasn't Amanda Beckett. I don't know a 90's kid who doesn't love this movie. And that is damn well what I expect from my fellow Gen X'ers.
Musical Extra Credit: Blink 182 - Dammit
5.) Mean Girls
Yearbook Worthy Quote: "Half the people in this room are mad at me, and the other half only like me because they think I pushed somebody in front a bus, so that's not good."
That quote is everything an alien race would need to know about being a teenager on the third planet from the sun. Being a teenager is challenging. Being a teenage girl? Even with three sisters I'm not going to pretend that I have any clue how horrible that would be. Boys in high school are idiots and the girls are pure evil, unless they are your friends. And even then, there is a good chance that they are "frienemies" (Regina George sure as hell knows how to coin a phrase). The ebb and flow of celebrity in the high school arena is as dangerous as a riptide. The jungle motif throughout Mean Girls could not be more perfect. When you graduate, you feel like a survivor.
Musical Extra Credit: Dancing With Myself - The Donna's
4.) The Breakfast Club
Yearbook Worthy Quote: "We're all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it."
John Hughes had a direct line to the heartstrings of high school students. He had a visceral way of carbon copying that which plagued the minds and hearts of teenagers and plastering it on the screen as if to say "Take heart. You're not the only one." The quick list: Estevez, Hall, Nelson, Ringwold, and *wistful sigh* Sheedy. When you put talent like that into one room, with dialogue that bleeds post-adolescent self-consciousness and sexual tension it's hard to fail. But The Breakfast Club is no mere C+ passing grade blow-off class, it is an honors course in mourning a time you wish you could get back, if only to do it better and be better to those that were more like you than you could have ever known.
Musical Extra Credit: if you don't already know, then what are you even doing reading this?
Yearbook Worthy Quote: "When you're young, not much matters. When you find something you care about, then that's all you got."
If you cut your thigh with a razorblade and rub gravel into it you might be able to recreate the painful grit that is the teen drama Kids. Leo Fitzpatrick, as Telly, is not a hero; he's not even an antagonist. He's that guy in your high school that no one wanted around but he just happened to show up at every party anyway, flirting with the girls that didn't know any better despite them being constantly warned from even his own friends. Casper, always at his heels, gobbles up Telly's urban sage schtick. Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson bring the soft-spoken feminine strength to the story and do not disappoint. Even as Jennie becomes the tragedienne, and your heart drops, it's hard to stop watching. Before New York City became the polished, glistening metropolis that it is known as now, there was a seclusion to the characters below its concrete jungle canopy; there is no world outside of New York City for many of its residents. And why should there be? New York is the main character in this movie that has no real centerpoint. As John Lennon said "If I'd lived in Roman times, I'd have lived in Rome. Where else? Today America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself."
Musical Extra Credit: Oh My God - A Tribe Called Quest
2.) American Graffiti
Yearbook Worthy Quote: "We're finally getting out of this turkey town, and now you wanna crawl back into your cell, right? You wanna end up like John? You just can't stay seventeen forever."
"Where were you in '62?" was the tagline for this sometimes forgotten classic, but for those who were there and know where they were, it is unforgettable. I've heard tell of exploits involving 'cruising the strip' from older generations and they all mirror this staple piece of film Americana. Post-Opie "Ronny" Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, and Han Solo in a '55 Chevy make this film a boiling pot of potential. All the while, Terry "the Toad" epitomizes the desperate dip trying his damndest to earn some semblance of cool as John Milner tries his damndest not to lose his crown as the king of cool. Directed by George Lucas, with E.P. Francis Ford Coppola, with the Wolfman Jack as a vital part of the story, American Graffiti defines an era of pop-culture that isn't as respected by the mainstream as it should be.
Musical Extra Credit: Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids - At The Hop
1.) Dazed And Confused
Yearbook Worthy Quote: "I'd like to quit thinking of the present - like, right now - as some minor, insignificant preamble to somethin' else."
A soundtrack that is recognizable to anyone who has ever heard any classic rock song combined with the free-for-all of a 70's generation that truly embraced the Damn The Man philosophy. Randall "Pink" Floyd railing against the fascist confines of his football coaching staff, cliques intermingling, Wiley Wiggins touching his face more than an acne doctor, and upperclassmen hazing the Freshman as the good lord of abuse Fred O'Bannion intended - Dazed is as vital canon as your uncle's unprompted "When I was your age..." at a family barbecue. Oh, and then there's Matthew McConaughey. Damn, Wooderson, you are the reluctant protagonist of a generation. The last day of school has never been represented more authentically than at Bedichek Middle School (the actual school used as the setting for R.E. Lee H.S.)
Musical Extra Credit: Alice Cooper - School's Out
Image - IMDb.