It’s a shame that the new theatrical release The Edge of Seventeen has had a relatively weak showing at the box office, since it’s one of the most perceptive coming-of-age films in years. Starring Hailee Steinfeld as an angst-ridden teenager, it’s also one of those movies that truly seems to understand high school. In that regard, it’s not alone, as numerous other pictures have successfully captured at least some facet of what it’s like to be a student coping with classes, cliques, peer pressure, and other academic hurdles.
From older classics like 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and 1973’s American Graffiti to more modern gems like 2001’s Ghost World and 2007’s Juno, there have been plenty of great motion pictures about the trials and tribulations endured by teenagers. The following 15, though, are the ones that best grasp these adolescent experiences as filtered through the hallowed halls of high school.
15. DAZED AND CONFUSED
Dazed and Confused is Richard Linklater’s 1993 ode to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It follows a group of Austin, Texas, high schoolers around as they kick off their summer vacation by getting drunk, getting high, and getting jiggy with it. The picture is virtually plotless, yet by nailing the look, the music, and the dialogue of the era (1976), Linklater generates a you-are-there vibe as he examines a period when indulging in vices was viewed as a coming-of-age rite of passage rather than a life-threatening act of immorality.
Ben Affleck and Milla Jovovich are among those filling out the ensemble cast, although it’s Matthew McConaughey, as the jailbait-dating Wooderson, who delivers the film’s most famous line: “That’s what I love about these high school girls; I get older, they stay the same age.” Linklater would continue to peek in on the teen set throughout his career, in such films as Boyhood and School of Rock.
14. CLASS OF 1984
Unofficially a remake of 1955’s explosive Blackboard Jungle, this 1982 film opens with a text scrawl that partly reads, “Last year, there were 280,000 incidents of violence by students in American high schools. Fortunately, very few schools are like Lincoln High … yet.” So what appeared to be the exception in 1982 has often proven to be the rule in these post-Columbine times, a sad commentary on the United States’ underfunded educational system and lax gun laws.
Of course, no one will be mistaking this exploitation yarn for a serious social critique. Instead, Class of 1984 is basically entertainment as catharsis, as the bullied kids (including a pudgy, pre-Family Ties Michael J. Fox) at an inner-city school find a hero in Andrew Norris (Perry King), a music teacher who quickly learns that many of his pupils are more interested in rape and robbery than test scores and perfect attendance. Once he realizes that compassion won’t get him anywhere, he elects to take down these punks in true Death Wish fashion.
13. AMERICAN TEEN
Filmed over the course of one year at an Indiana high school, this 2008 documentary from director Nanette Burstein loosely borrows the template of The Breakfast Club and applies it to real-life seniors. Yet while there’s interest in following a geek (a shy kid with an unfortunate haircut and severe acne), a popular girl (a rich brat whose cruelty apparently knows no bounds), and a jock (an affable guy who’s pressured by his dad to go after a basketball scholarship), it’s the artsy girl (the sensitive Hannah Bailey) who emerges as an audience favorite.
American Teen is particularly perceptive, acknowledging the extent to which parents influence their children’s outlook on life. In American Teen’s case studies, those influences are mostly negative, as these kids will have to be careful that they don’t turn out as boorish, fearful, and closed-minded as the adults. To take but one example, check out the mom who frets over her child heading to liberal California with the same degree of panic as someone worrying about their son or daughter heading into a combat zone.
A fake ID — a Holy Grail for the high school set — nabs a major supporting role in this 2007 box office hit that introduced “McLovin” to the English lexicon. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, both perfectly cast, play Seth and Evan, longtime besties hoping to spend their last couple of months in high school attending cool parties and dating hot girls. Seeking to score some alcohol to bring to a major bash, the guys turn to their ultra-geeky pal Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who’s in possession of a fake ID identifying him as a 25-year-old man simply named McLovin.
The controversial date-rape subplot involving Emma Stone’s character remains problematic and the cops played by Seth Rogen and Bill Hader grow tiresome, but where this often uproarious picture soars is in delineating the fierce and touching bond that can establish itself between insecure boys suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous high school misfortune. That it was co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg while they were in high school only adds to the film’s authenticity.
11. LOVE & BASKETBALL
A film that spans approximately two decades wouldn’t seem like a natural fit for a list that focuses on a specific four years in a person’s life, but 2000’s Love & Basketball deserves to make the cut.
Its protagonists are Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps), two people who both love basketball from a young age and only later learn that they adore each other just as much. Only one lengthy portion of the picture is actually set in high school, but it’s an important one, showing the pressures each teenager faces both on and off the court at their Los Angeles school.
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood takes care to acknowledge the hardships inherent in high school sports — from the incredible pressure to always maintain a competitive edge to the unsolicited advice from opinionated parents — but she also finds time to pay tribute to that all-important first blush of love.
10. THE SPECTACULAR NOW
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) may be the cool kid at his high school, but like any senior worth his salt, he’s at a crossroads when it comes to sorting out the present and figuring out the future. But that’s okay– as long as he has his trusty flask, his keg parties, and his booze-fortified sodas to give him strength. He also has a pet project in Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), arrogantly believing he can bring value to the life of this awkward teen — a virgin who’s into anime and believes nothing interesting has ever happened to her.
Aside from Woodley’s heart-rending performance, what’s particularly noteworthy about James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is the way it subtly tackles Sutter’s drinking, slowly revealing him not as a fun-loving guy but as a damaged individual just a few years away from becoming an alcoholic. It’s not the sort of narrative spin generally found in high school flicks, and it’s all the more powerful for not being preachy or maudlin.
9. ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL
P.J. Soles, no stranger to playing high school kids (see also Carrie and Halloween), is an absolute delight in this 1979 cult classic. Soles stars as Riff Randell, a student whose grudge match against her school’s tyrannical principal (Mary Woronov) receives a boost from the arrival of her favorite band, the Ramones.
Allan Arkush’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School might seem too silly for any of its points to be taken seriously — a human-sized dancing rat? — but the movie earns its varsity letter is by accurately conveying the total devotion and absolute adoration teens display toward an exalted singer or band. What’s more, the selection of the punk-rock Ramones (an earlier draft before they came aboard was called Disco High) led to the inclusion of such songs as “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do”, “Teenage Lobotomy”, and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, effectively functioning as a soundtrack for a new generation.
8. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
After watching various filmmakers (most notably John Hughes) circle his 1999 novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky made the smart play by deciding to write and direct the 2012 screen adaptation himself. Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, a high school freshman who’s haunted by fuzzy memories from his early childhood as well as by the recent suicide of his best friend. Starting high school, he’s soon befriended by the quirky kids Sam (Emma Watson, then newly graduated from Hogwarts) and Patrick (Ezra Miller in a standout performance).
From Charlie coping with crippling depression to Patrick being gay among hyper-masculine boys, the film doesn’t shy away from examining adolescent ordeals that are alternately painful and poignant. Many other moments also ring true, such as Charlie awkwardly kissing the right girl at the wrong time and Charlie, Sam, and Patrick all rallying around a song that speaks to the heart (in this case, David Bowie’s stirring anthem “Heroes”).
7. AN EDUCATION
A superb Carey Mulligan stars in this exquisite 2009 drama that’s set in London during the early 1960s. Directed by Lone Scherfig and penned by About a Boy author Nick Hornby (adapting Lynn Barber’s memoir), An Education centers on 16-year-old Jenny and how her plans to attend Oxford upon graduation threaten to get derailed once she meets a debonair gentleman (Peter Sarsgaard) twice her age. Her decision to potentially toss aside higher education troubles not only her favorite teacher (Olivia Williams) but also the school’s principal (Emma Thompson).
The allure of the adult world to a sheltered teenager can’t be overstated — in Jenny’s case, it’s represented by a whirlwind rush of nightclubs, champagne, and fine art — but the film deftly avoids any long-winded moralizing. Instead, this Academy Award nominee for Best Picture thoughtfully acknowledges that regrettable situations don’t always destroy lives– sometimes they can be used to positively shape goals that extend far beyond the school years.
The prom is often one of the most unforgettable experiences in a young girl’s life, what with the beautiful dresses, the romantic songs, the perfect date, the dreamy décor, and — in the case of poor Carrie White — the bucket of pig’s blood precariously balanced over the auditorium stage.
Based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel (Lawrence D. Cohen gets credit for the richly layered screenplay), this 1976 hit stars Sissy Spacek as Carrie, a high school outcast who uses her telekinetic abilities to exact bloody revenge against her many tormentors. Expertly directed by Brian De Palma, the film revolves around the extraordinary performance by Spacek, who deservedly earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Today, Carrie not only retains its standing as a superior thriller but, with its unflinching look at the real-life horrors of peer pressure and incessant bullying, also operates as a stinging and perceptive examination of teen alienation.
“When teenagers complain that they want to be treated like human beings, it’s usually because they are being treated like human beings.” “This is Ohio. I mean, if you don’t have a brewski in your hand, you might as well be wearing a dress.” “Dear diary: My teen angst bullshit now has a body count.” With grade-A quips like these, is it any wonder this 1989 gem remains in high standing? This classic dark comedy, penned by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, has recently spawned a musical and a reboot TV series.
Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a popular girl who’s growing tired of the shallow and cruel antics of the three other members of her clique, all named Heather (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, and Kim Walker). Needing a break from their nonsense, Veronica ends up dating new-kid-in-town J.D. (Christian Slater), only to realize that he’s making sure the “harmless” gags they pull on their insufferable classmates are in fact sadistic pranks resulting in death.
Even in this age of school shootings, Heathers’ reputation has remained unscathed, undoubtedly because its marination in the juices of pitch-black comedy has given it an air of surrealism far removed from any real-life tragedies.
It’s not readily apparent from Alexander Payne’s 1999 film version, but Tom Perrotta’s novel Election was inspired by the 1992 Presidential campaign in which Bill Clinton triumphed over George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. Yet that satiric subtext proves to be inconsequential here, as high school is just as likely to be subjected to political posturing and blatant power plays as anywhere in the adult world.
Reese Witherspoon is formidable as Tracy Flick, a brainy overachiever who’ll stop at nothing to be elected president of the student government, while Matthew Broderick is similarly spot-on as Jim McAllister, a beloved teacher who fosters a personal vendetta against this perky politico. Tracy Flick is a dynamic figure — who hasn’t known someone like this in high school? — and as Mr. McAllister’s coup d’état against her flounders and leaves him vulnerable to a retaliatory coup de grace, it becomes chillingly clear who’s providing the real lessons in the classroom.
3. MEAN GIRLS
Like the best movies in this genre, this 2004 clique flick is a teen comedy that refuses to be pigeonholed as merely a teen comedy. Its guiding light is Tina Fey, who turned Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence into the script for Mean Girls, a fictional film seasoned with her own pithy, piercing observations.
Lindsay Lohan, still in the halcyon stage of her career, plays Cady Heron, making her debut at a Chicago public school after a lifetime of being home-schooled in Africa. A cultural and social blank slate, Cady is immediately befriended by punkish Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and “almost too gay to function” Damian (Daniel Franzese) before being assimilated Borg-style by three princesses collectively known as The Plastics: leader Regina (Rachel McAdams) and sycophants Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried).
Mean Girls amusingly presents the high school milieu as an untamed jungle, and Fey (who also appears before the cameras as Cady’s math teacher) and director Mark Waters never slip into ersatz sentimentality, preferring their film to maintain its appropriately wicked edge.
2. THE BREAKFAST CLUB
Thanks largely to the unexpected success of 1982’s Porky’s ($105 million at the U.S. box office), the ’80s was a decade jam-packed with films featuring sex-addled teenage nitwits. Bucking the norm, writer-director John Hughes served up 1985’s The Breakfast Club, which has since emerged as a seminal film for many who came of age in the ‘80s.
Hughes nicely nails the anxieties and insecurities of the high school set with this engaging yarn about five disparate students — a jock (Emilio Estevez), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a brain (Anthony Michael Hall), a criminal (Judd Nelson), and a basketcase (Ally Sheedy) — who are forced to spend a Saturday together in detention and end up discovering some common ground. The occasionally awkward dialogue sounds perfectly natural coming from the mouths of these teens, and, even decades later, it’s impossible to hear Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” without flashing back to this film.
When it comes to high school movies, is there any area in which Clueless does not excel? Loosely (very loosely) adapted from Jane Austen’s Emma by writer-director Amy Heckerling, this 1995 marvel concerns itself with Cher (an excellent Alicia Silverstone), a pampered Beverly Hills student whose carefully structured life becomes messy once her mind gets flooded by romantic aspirations.
Smart and sophisticated, Clueless offers copious laughs as it skips through many adolescent signposts with disarming ease: the intimidating driver’s ed test, the temporary fallout between friends over a boy, the sartorial sloppiness among the guys, and much more.
Despite the bright performances from the younger actors (including Paul Rudd and the late Brittany Murphy), it’s veteran Dan Hedaya who ends up stealing the show. As Cher’s gruff father, he barks at one of her dates that “if anything happens to my daughter, I have a .45 and a shovel; I doubt anybody would miss you.”
What movie best represented your high school years? Let us know in the comments!