High School was tough enough without reliving it through movies, but the temptation is too great to pass up, especially as I watch my kids return to school. I would say that Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused best sums up my experience. I like what Criterion did in the way of a boxed set. Too bad Linklater couldn’t get the rights to the title song, but I can live with “Sweet Emotion.” Super soundtrack from the 70s. Texas was also fertile ground for The Last Picture Show set in the panhandle of the state in the 1950s. It’s fun to watch a young Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd.
Loved Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The relationship between Spicoli and Mr. Hand is one of the most memorable in high school movies. The movie also proved to be a fertile ground for young actors, as did Valley Girl from about the same time.
These movies were quite a departure from the classic movies like Rebel Without a Cause, American Graffiti and Grease. Sex, drugs, booze and rock and roll had come to play a prominent part in high school movies.
Frederick Wiseman’s High School (1968) was one of the first documentaries devoted to the subject. Hoop Dreams gives us a real look at the impact of sports in high school as Steven James follows the true life stories of William Gates and Arthur Agee. The Bully Project takes a forceful look at bullying in schools across the country, with the first feature documentary film due out March 30, pending Harvey Weinstein’s battle with the MPAA over an NC-17 rating.
Fame danced its way across our screens in 1980, and then was recast in 2009. The original had a good edge to it even if the title song became one of the most annoying pop songs of the 80s. Kevin Bacon went Footloose in Nebraska, as he found himself coming up against religious conservatives and bad girl Lori Singer, but it lacked punch. Bacon was much better in Animal House and Diner.
There have been some wonderfully off beat high school movies like Rushmore and Flirting which took a more personal look at high school. Napoleon Dynamite also struck a similar chord. But, my personal favorite remains Lindsey Anderson’s If….
Looking further abroad, Francois Truffaut gives us a neo-realistic view of his early school days in The 400 Blows. You might call it satirical socialist realism, as Elem Klimov explores life in Soviet pioneer camps in Welcome, or No Trespassing, ca. 1964. Malèna, as played by Monica Bellucci, becomes a group of young school boys’ wet dream. Poor little young Renato struggles with these visions as he goes through school in a Sicilian town during WWII, which has an odd parallel to The Summer of ’42. For young Solomon Perel it is even more difficult, as he finds himself having to painfully conceal his real identity as he goes through Hitler’s Jugend program in Europa, Europa. Fellini also deals with confused teens living in an age of authoritarianism in Amarcord.
Gus van Sant’s Elephant takes a hard look at high school in the wake of Columbine. Michael Moore took a more literal look at high school shootings in Bowling for Columbine. Larry Clark explores teenage sex in Kids to agonizing effect.. Sofia Coppola also looked at the downside of high school in The Virgin Suicides. This contrasted sharply with John Hughes vision of high school, as the hardest edges he seemed to expose were in The Breakfast Club, turning Molly Ringwald into the ultimate teen queen.
Sex and high school tend to be of the soft porn variety as seen in movies like Private School. Probably a movie Matthew Modine would like us to forget. But, there were some directors who explored the subject with more sensitivity, such as Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen. Not as convincing, but Mischa Barton learns about sex the hard way in Skipped Parts.
It was more fun watching Mischa Barton put The Oh in Ohio, at least as far as Paul Rudd was concerned. Funny to see Parker Posey and Paul Rudd dealing with adult life and Danny DeVito putting the Oh into Parker Posey’s life. Rudd was pretty good in Clueless, where Jane Austin meets Beverly Hills.
High school could be filled with terror as well, and no movie struck a deeper chord than Carrie, the ultimate film about teenage alienation and revenge. Halloween introduced us to Michael Meyers, while Nightmare on Elm Street gave us the immortal Freddy Kreuger, who still haunt us today. Kevin Bacon pops up briefly in the original Friday the 13th. And, who can forget Tromaville High School in Class of Nuke’Em High.
David Lynch has taken us down a much darker side in such movies as Blue Velvet and Fire Walk with Me, illustrating what happens when teenagers get too curious. Fire Walk is also good for those who wondered who was Laura Palmer. One of my favorites is River’s Edge which takes a demented look at young love gone badly wrong and a group of high school kids trying to sort out the scene and their emotions. Great introduction to the manic Crispen Glover. Makes you forget Keanu Reeves was ever in the movie.
Revisiting high school is not so easy as Matthew Broderick finds out in Alexander Payne’s wonderfully ironic Election. You can almost see Sarah Palin in Resse Witherspoon’s character. Francis Ford Coppola had great fun with the theme in Peggy Sue Got Married. Robin Wiliams and Kurt Russell find themselves trying to recapture a high school moment in The Best of Times. Gene Hackman has nowhere to go but back to his old high school in Hoosiers, reliving a moment of glory. And, Dennis Hopper finds himself Carried Away with a young high school girl, much to the chagrin of his lady friend, Amy Irving, and a conservative small town.
High School sports have become as big as college sports, and no movie glorified this more than Friday Night Lights, which was subsequently made into a television series. And, the girls that cheer for them in Bring it On! with cheerleading becoming a sport in itself. But, the most amusing movie along these lines was The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, which was actually based on a true story. Spike Lee takes on basketball in He’s Got Game. Vision Quest was one of the few movies I’ve seen to dramatize wrestling, making it into an existential search.
Breaking Away captures that wisfful time in between high school and college, as home town “Cutters” find themselves pitted against the Bloomington college boys. Rumble Fish also seems to capture a sense of misspent youth, albeit in a much more expressionist way.
As far as competition goes, it is pretty hard to beat Spellbound, a wonderful documentary that revolves around the National Spelling Bee Championship, which no doubt serves as the inspiration for Akeelah and the Bee, only fact was much more fascinating than fiction in this case. Mad Hot Ballroom was one of the most fun movies I had seen in years, following New York kids as they competed in ballroom dancing. Put Take the Lead to shame.
But, let’s end on a upbeat note with the good time sounds of Rock n Roll High School, featuring the Ramones. And, for a good laugh there’s John Waters’ Cry-Baby, with a young Johnny Depp turning a town on its ear.
Feel free to share your favorite high school reveries. You can check out movie trailers and clips by clicking on the links above.Read less