It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the peak of our athleticism; it was the height of our awkwardness. We knew everything; we couldn’t remember the name Charles Dickens on an English test.
School is a world of contradictions everyone experiences and remembers in their own special way. Whether your school was a nightmare of unequal power dynamics or a comedy of unequal power dynamics, filmmakers have tried to bottle these disparate journeys since the beginning of cinema.
Although the decisions of face-to-face instruction and virtual learning are a new hurdle in an already complicated process, we thought we would offer some of our favorite scholastic movies for getting in the school spirit.
‘Eighth Grade’ (2018)
Between the gut-wrenching despair of Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and the cartoonish absurdity of “Napoleon Dynamite” lies Bo Burnham’s directorial debut. The then-28-year-old comedian (who started writing it at 23) delivered an up-to-the-minute portrayal of the life of a modern tween girl. And by modern, we mean one who understands third season “Rick & Morty” references.
The conflict with Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is immediately apparent, though there is no particular antagonist or driving event. She is just the child of a single dad (a delightful Josh Hamilton) living through the last week of middle school and desperately hoping to be something that someone will like.
Breaking with the tradition of casting young-looking 20-somethings to play teenagers, the age-appropriate Fisher gives a performance that is groundbreaking in its level of reality and awareness.
The movie is unflinching in its awkward moments, which can inspire peels of laughter or breath held in absolute fear. The pathos rides the roller-coaster from mean girls to school-shooter drills to the unwanted attention of high school boys.
While the movie isn’t especially vulgar, it is rated R for a reason. It’s the kind of art that parents and children will find real and poignant but that they probably don’t want to watch together. – Trevor Fraser
‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989)
I had an eighth-grade teacher who would stand on desks and shout in class. He was scarily intimidating and wonderfully engaging all at the same time – much like Robin Williams’ character in “Dead Poets Society.”
A Washington Post reviewer praised Williams for giving a “nicely restrained acting performance” for his role in the 1989 drama, which has since been widely recognized as one of the actor/comedian’s best (and also earned him an Oscar nomination).
Set in 1959, Williams’ character, John Keating, is a new English teacher at Welton Academy, an all-male, elite prep school. The students are surprised by Keating’s unorthodox teaching methods (like standing on desks, ripping pages from poetry books, etc.).
A Welton alumnus himself, he encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary,” a sentiment he summarizes with the Latin expression carpe diem, which means to “seize the day.” He made his lessons interesting, engaging and dared his students to walk their own paths, which of course, ruffles the feathers of parents and the headmaster.
The “O Captain, my Captain!” scene alone is worth watching the movie. – Cassie Armstrong
‘The Craft’ (1996)
The handsome and loathsome slut-shaming jock. As prominent a trope in high school movies as mean cheerleaders, nerds with glasses and out-of-touch administrators. And don’t we all just love it when they get their inevitable comeuppance?
In “The Craft,” outcast teen witches run amok with pagan ritual-invoked powers and get so far out of hand, we’re left feeling sorry for the captain of the football team.
It’s a basic walk-through rectitude, one in which young women – cliche alert! – begin to realize the powers they have but fail badly in their attempts to use them wisely. “The anti-Clueless,” a few reviews called it back in 1994.
It’s a bit darker than your average teen romp but notably touches on issues very real to far too many adolescents, including body image, domestic abuse, racism and poverty.
On the flip side: the clothes and the hair and the Goth teen angst, the haunting, aching Morrissey and the striking, psychotic performance of icy-eyed Fairuza Balk – so good that I could never believe her as anything else again?!
Sorry for the obviousness, but it’s magic. After all, who among us could resist employing supernatural solutions to our adolescent problems if we could? – Amy Drew Thompson
‘10 Things I Hate About You’ (1999)
Centered on the lives of a group of high school students as they try to navigate school and romantic entanglements, “10 Things I Hate About You” is a great back-to-school pick.
In this updated adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” an all-star cast (Julia Stiles, Gabrielle Union, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and, my favorite male actor, the late Heath Ledger) experiences the typical high school happenings, from detention to soccer practice and prom.
But it also has a few unreal, yet memorable, plot points, including a father who makes his daughter wear a pregnancy belly before going to a party, a guidance counselor attempting to write an erotic novel while meeting with students and an epic display of feelings when Patrick Verona (Ledger) dances while singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with the accompaniment of the marching band.
And who could forget the scene where Kat Stratford (Stiles) emotionally presents her poem, for which the film gets its title, in front of her class? Plus, it’s a movie my husband and I can both agree upon. If you’re a fan of the film, do yourself a favor and skip the TV series. It’s not worth your time. – Kathleen Christiansen
‘School of Rock’ (2003)
“Those that can’t do, teach. Those that can’t teach, teach gym,” said Jack Black while playing washed-up guitarist Dewey Finn. Finding himself in a desperate situation and needing to pay rent, Black poses as a substitute teacher named Mr. Schneebly at a private school.
In a series of unconventional lessons, Black takes his students on a journey of rock ‘n’ roll and crazy antics that culminates with an epic battle of the bands near the end of the film. It’s a tale filled with music, rock-inspired coming of age, fun and plenty of Black’s distinct brand of humor.
And despite its PG-13 rating, the film doesn’t contain much that an older elementary schooler or young middle schooler couldn’t handle. – Patrick Connolly
The entire ‘Harry Potter’ series (2001-2011)
The “Harry Potter” movie franchise is full of wizards, spells, monsters, time travel and other curses. But what grounds all the magic in reality – and makes the characters so relatable – is that it’s also a saga of a misfit adolescent making his way through school. Granted, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is no ordinary institution of learning.
But the anxieties and triumphs of Potter and his friends brilliantly capture the emotional underpinnings of the psychological battleground that is high school. Whether it’s excelling at sports, agonizing over finding a date for the formal dance, cramming for exams or dealing with bullies, the “Harry Potter” series is the story of school.
And then there are the fantastic – and not so fantastic – teachers. From scattered Sybill Trelawney to self-aggrandizing Gilderoy Lockhart, in love with his own voice, to brutally tough Severus Snape, we’ve all known teachers like these.
Do I have a favorite school scene? There are so many across the films, it’s difficult to choose one – but “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” features a novel example of the time-honored tradition of passing notes in class that always makes me smile. And don’t all kids wish they could skip the yellow bus and head back to school on the magical Hogwarts Express? – Matthew J. Palm
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