The best high-school movies may not exactly match your own school experiences but they make for fantastic films about a key part of everyone's lives.
As kids we were routinely told by our parents and other, no doubt, well-intentioned adults that school would be the best days of our lives. Thankfully, they weren’t – last Tuesday, for instance, was pretty special.
But for some of you, you'll now be heading back to school or college after (hopefully) a summer to remember. You might be feeling a little down about this but, as these great high-school movies show, sometimes school can be pretty epic!
The Silver Screen has been drawn to this distinctive theme time and again. The classic high school film – and, yes, more often than not it is the American high school experience that we see at the cinema – is a Hollywood staple.
With than in mind, here are our favourite high-school movies of all time...
Best high-school movies
1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
John Hughes could have had umpteen films in this list (Weird Science, Sixteen Candles and Some Kind of Wonderful all missed out), but that just goes to show he was a master of his art. In this spellbinding outing, Matthew Broderick goes left-of-centre for his striking turn as Ferris Bueller, a young man just struggling to take it easy in high school.
2. The Breakfast Club
Until one has succumbed to the terror that is detention one has not experienced school in all its desperate glory. Not our words, but those of Oscar Wilde. Ok, they’re ours. This quintessential high school film – from the genius that was John Hughes – stars Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall as the five youthful stereotypes brought together for a Saturday morning detention they’ll never forget.
3. Back To The Future
The classic high school movie collides with the outlandish principles of the science fiction adventure flick in this superb 1985 film. Michael J. Fox bagged the role of a lifetime, as he goes back in time to ensure his parents actually do get together in school. While there he discovers the mechanics of school haven’t changed dramatically in 30 years. Something that still exists today no doubt.
4. Dazed And Confused
Yes, it’s set in a very definitive place and time – Austin, Texas; 1976 – but this archetypal high school film speaks to everyone who has ever passed through the school gates. So, nigh on everybody, then. Rebellion, sex, drugs, sports, dictatorial authority, bizarre initiation ceremonies and, erm, woodwork all feature in this iconic Richard Linklater picture.
Popping your cherry is clearly one of the major themes of anyone’s school days (see American Pie) and such an obsession is the stuff of Superbad. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera pair up as best buddies about to graduate from high school and go to separate colleges. Can they retain their friendship in the face of sexual anxiety and some much needed partying?
6. Dead Poets Society
Inspirational teacher movies are a timeless Hollywood staple – Dangerous Minds, Mr Holland’s Opus, Conrack and Freedom Writers are a few of the films that didn’t quite make this list. Dead Poet’s Society ranks highly not just because of the attention lavished upon it, but because its central performance from Robin Williams is so compelling. O Captain! My Captain!
7. Fast Times At Ridgemont High
In 2005, the venerated US Library of Congress declared that Fast Times at Ridgemont High be preserved in its nation’s National Film Registry due to its cultural, historical or aesthetical significance. And you thought it was a comedy that held a very risqué mirror up to high school politics! Trivia alert: three actors who appeared in Fast Times – Sean Penn (twice), Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage – went onto win Best Actor Oscars.
Loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless, much like Mean Girls and Heathers, explores the notion of popularity in high school and the toxic repercussions of that influence. Alicia Silverstone shines as the vapid Cher, as she takes on her pet project of transforming new pupil Tai (Brittany Murphy) into one of the hippest girls in school. A typically Hollywood ending ensues, but the tongue is firmly in the right place during the course of this classic Nineties flick.
9. American Pie
Because sometimes the entire preoccupation with school can be reduced to one simple obsession – losing one’s virginity. Shame the franchise had to sully the rambunctious excellence of this first hilarious outing.
Life as a teenager has always been inextricably linked with serial murder on the big screen and Wes Craven's razor sharp 1996 slasher movie managed to combine them with more wit and invention than most of its peers. A group of pop culture-savvy youths find themselves at the mercy of an equally knowledgeable killer and another three movies later and the rest is history. Simultaneously funny and scary, Scream was a seminal horror film.
Christian Slater and Winona Ryder might not have built upon their early promise, but they were in their element in this late Eighties classic. Exploring the notion of cliques and popularity in school, Slater (the intentionally named James Dean homage J.D.) and Ryder (Veronica) team up to destroy Westerberg High School’s time-honoured social equilibrium. Comedic and hard-hitting – just like school.
12. Mean Girls
Lindsay Lohan was once regarded as a young actress to watch for her thespian talents, rather than her talent for self-destructing. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in her standout film to date, Mean Girls. An updated version of the high school clique movie, Lohan stars as Cady, a well-adjusted teenager who vows to take the Plastics (led by Rachel McAdams) down a few pegs.
13. School Of Rock
Because the three Rs should really mean Radiohead, the Rolling Stones and Run-D.M.C.. Jack Black shines, in his definitive performance, as the hapless musician who dreams of rock’n’roll stardom, yet by a twist of fate finds inculcating receptive students with rock mythology more fulfilling.
A brief perusal of (high) school movies will testify to the politics – both real and metaphorical – that plague the educational years. This controversial and comedic topic is deftly explored by director Alexander Payne in Election, one of the best films of the late Nineties. Reece Witherspoon stars as ambitious Tracy Flick, a determined schoolgirl who wants to use the post of class president as another bonus on her collegiate application. Teacher Matthew Broderick (who had come a long way since Ferris Bueller) vows to halt her seemingly inexorable rise to power.
School is not about education, feeding the imagination or providing children with the skills necessary to succeed in life. No, it’s about music, fast cars, looking sharp and copping off with the opposite sex. And for this Hollywood truth, Grease is still very much the word.
16. Donnie Darko
School years are a vexed time for kids and teenagers – this much is clear from the films dedicated to such an integral part of ones life. But it’s doubtful most kids are as troubled as Donnie Darko: his school is plagued with hypocritical teachers; boorish bullies and the usual moral vicissitudes. Thankfully, Donnie has a plan…
Has any film ever captured the agonising pain of being the scorned outsider whilst at school better than Carrie? The violent carnage that takes place at that most American of institutions – the school prom – is most definitely a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Sissy Spacek excels in this chilling adaptation of Stephen King’s memorable tale.
A suitably offbeat Wes Anderson film starring the oddball charms of Jason Schwartzman and that helped kick-start Bill Murray’s ‘second career’? What’s not to like? Schwartzman stars as intriguing student Max Fischer of the prestigious Rushmore Academy as he battles the institution’s traditional values – with a little assistance from bored industrialist Herman Blume (Murray).
19. Blackboard Jungle
Perhaps best known as the 1955 film that introduced the nascent form of rock’n’roll onto an unsuspecting populace (Bill Haley & His Comets’ Rock Around The Clock features heavily), Blackboard Jungle also comes recommended as a significant high school movie. Glenn Ford stars as the teacher trying to reach out to a class of juvenile delinquents including, ironically enough, Sidney Poitier.
20. The Last Picture Show
The end of school can be an unsettling experience – what was once solid has now melted into air. It’s this emotion that Peter Bogdanovich captured memorably in his 1971 opus, The Last Picture Show. Starring Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd, the film explores the end of an era through the closing down of a small town’s cinema. Can the friendships made at school endure beyond the gates?
21. House Party
What a cast. Kid n Play, Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell and A.J. Johnson all star in a movie that is a fantastic coming-of-age tale. The film is written and directed by Reginald Hudlin and - in a school-based twist - it's a reboot of a movie he made while at Harvard. While the main part of the movie is all about the house party, it's the school scenes, where the party is plotted, that are just as memorable.
22. Goodbye, Mr Chips
Goodbye, Mr Chips might not be widely known today, but thanks to his lead performance actor Robert Donat beat the likes of Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney and James Stewart to the Best Actor Oscar. Donat stars as the eponymous Chips, a retired teacher who recalls his long and distinguished career just before his death. A moving and gripping film that works to endorse teaching as a legitimate noble calling.
The manifold inadequacies of the British public school system – and, by extension British society as a whole – are laid bare in this iconic counterculture Sixties classic. Malcolm McDowell, in his first starring role, shines in Lindsay Anderson’s expertly observed satire of public school life.
24. The Belles Of St Trinian’s
Comedy capers galore in the first of the St Trinian’s films, dating from 1954. Alastair Sim stars (in two roles) in this riotous tale of the anarchic all-girls school St Trinian’s. George Cole pops up as the classic spiv who is just one of many thwarted by the headstrong girls. The less said about the recent ‘reboot’ the better – apart from the late Sarah Harding’s appearance natch.
Before John Hughes and the Brat Pack, there was Kes. A slice of Northern life so gritty you can almost smell the coal and taste the bread and dripping, it works in many ways as a proto E.T.. Billy Casper – whippet thin, borderline inarticulate - has few friends at school so when he starts to care for a kestrel he finally begins to find a sense of self. We won’t share the tragic ending, but this film from the righteous Ken Loach demands to be seen by all.
Coming out at a similar time to Eighth Grade, Booksmart is Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, and it is an assured on, hilarious look at life for two not-quite-in-the-in-crowd students who have a day and night to remember while partying on their last day of class. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as the graduating school girls are just superb.
27. Eighth Grade
Bo Burnham's directorial debut is a stunning, authentic look at what it's like to be in the Eighth Grade. It's a brilliant coming-of-age drama where we follow a shy teenager who is trying to traverse her live which - like all her friends - is always online. It's hard to watch in places and bloody hilarious in others - much like, then, Burnham's amazing stand-up.
28. The History Boys
The late great Richard Griffiths is mesmeric as kindly teacher Hector in this superb adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play. Starring Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Russell Tovey and Andrew Knott, among others, director Nicholas Hytner depicts the honour, pain and good times that encapsulate friendship at school. Friendships that, after all, can last a lifetime.
29. The Class
Entre Lurs Murs (literally translated as Between the Walls, but released in the UK as The Class) won the feted Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. A hard-hitting adaptation of Francois Begaudeau’s semi-autobiographical account of his time spent teaching in a troubled school in Paris, The Class comes across like a gritty documentary but manages to temper this with dramatic licence. Not content with penning the source material, Begaudeau excels as, erm, himself in the film.
Rocks feels and looks like a documentary. It's testament to the largely amateur cast that makes everything that happens in the film - which is about Shola, AKA Rocks, who comes home one day to find her mum gone and her having to look after her brother. This is one of the very best movies of the last few years, so give it a watch now if it somehow passed you by.
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