Top 10 Movies About High School

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High School is an endlessly entertaining subject, and of course it has spawned countless films. But which ones are the best of this large genre? Mean Girls poster courtesy of Wikipedia, Dazed and Confused poster courtesy of Criterion, Clueless and Three O’Clock High posters courtesy of IMDB

By Oliver Barnfield, Reporter

Some people consider high school to be the highlight of their lives. Others say it’s the worst part of growing up. Naturally, it’s difficult to capture this duality in art. But some movies pull it off, and here are ten of them. 

 

10. American Graffiti

50s nostalgia arguably peaked with this movie. Sure, it takes place in 1962, but the early 60s were just the hangover of the 1950s. Directed by Star Wars creator George Lucas, it centers around a group of teenagers aimlessly driving around California over the course of just one night, a premise that would later be recycled for the #1 movie on this list. This movie would also later inspire the hugely successful TV sitcom Happy Days, which starred future director Ron Howard. I had the pleasure of seeing this one on the big screen at the Paramount theater some years ago, and whenever it’s safe to do so again, I recommend you see it in the theater too.

 

9. Three O’Clock High

Here’s one you don’t hear talked about too much. Three O’Clock High caught my attention because it stars Mitch Pillegi of The X-Files and featured a score by Tangerine Dream. This German electronic band is best known for their soundtracks that adorned Risky Business and Near Dark, but the score and movie here is just as good. The energetic camerawork and pulsing soundtrack perfectly captures the anxiousness of an average school day, as lead Jerry Mitchell prepares to fight bully Buddy Revell at 3:00. Apparently this film takes place in an alternate universe where school doesn’t end at 4:20 like it does here at Westwood. What a paradise these characters live in! The characters here are likeable enough, but it’s really the clever camerawork and frantic editing that puts this a step ahead of your average teen movie. You probably haven’t seen Three O’Clock High, but you definitely should. 

 

8. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I already talked about this in my list of Top 10 80s comedies, and I didn’t have much to say. Simply put, it’s a fun movie that is rightfully hailed as a classic to this day. If you haven’t seen it, grab yourself a VHS copy and watch it with your family for a fun and nostalgic time.

 

7. Clueless

Clueless is a movie that might seem stupid on the outside but is actually really smart. It’s a retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma, deriving from it a sharp and witty script. The fashion comes off as very dated today but that makes it even better and it comes off as a pleasing time capsule of the mid 90s. Most of the movies on this list are ones I would consider to be relatable to my high school experience, but if I’m being honest this movie is about as far removed from my life as humanly possible. I’m not a popular fashion queen who rules the school (yet), but you don’t need to be to enjoy this movie. And while the ending twist is a little morally iffy, it’s still a fun ride.  

 

6. Napoleon Dynamite

Alright, so I can’t relate to Clueless. So it’s embarrassing to admit that yeah, I find Napoleon Dynamite to hit pretty close to home. Napoleon is incredibly gangly and awkward, and his strange way of speaking really carries the movie. Napoleon Dynamite is an almost aggressively odd movie that incorporates an extremely stylized visual style reminiscent of the films of Wes Anderson, with some highly quotable dialogue and memorable characters. Another aspect of the movie I love is the nebulous time period it takes place in. The decor looks like the 60s, the music is 80s with a few 2000s songs, and the computers are from the 90s, but somehow the movie’s refusal to stick to a decade is endearing rather than generic. My favorite scenes are definitely the two dance scenes: both the incredibly relatable and also incredibly uncomfortable prom scene and the unforgettable solo dance that Napoleon pulls off. Napoleon Dynamite was a decade defining hit that gave the world a skewed and fascinating perspective into the high school experience.

 

5. Election

Here’s a rare example of a movie that focuses on a teacher, at least partially. But I doubt many teachers will enjoy this film, as Matthew Broderick’s Mr. McAllister is a terrible person. But due to Broderick’s innate likability, you never hate him, at least not until the memorable ending. Reese Witherspoon stars as Broderick’s adversary Tracy Flick in what would end up being her breakout role, and she exudes a perky charisma that will surely remind you of someone you know. The performances are great but I would like to spotlight the aesthetics of the film, which, much like Napoleon Dynamite, are flat and stylized. The high school in the movie actually reminds me a lot of Westwood, at least visually, and I really like how director Alexander Payne uses the greys and blues of the hallway walls to contrast against the clothing of the characters. Election is a movie that’s all about the characters, so if you want a thoughtful and funny look at high school, you can’t go wrong.

 

4. Carrie

I love Stephen King, so it’s only natural that one of his novels would crop up here, this time in the form of Brian DePalma’s Carrie. The titular character is a mousy but charming girl who has been relentlessly abused by her domineering religious mother, played by Piper Laurie. As Carrie, Sissy Spacek is great, perfectly capturing a sense of awkwardness that many will relate to. John Travolta is here as well, and he’s John Travolta, solid and charming as always. The film’s a little cheesy in some parts but that just adds to the charm, and it doubles as one of the best King adaptations as well. 

 

3. The Virgin Suicides

The title may seem off-putting, but don’t think this is trashy pulp. Sofia Coppola’s debut feature is a melancholy and beautiful story that centers around a group of mysterious sisters who enchant the students of a high school in the 70s. Kirsten Dunst, not yet a star at this point, gives a fantastic performance as Lux, the most interesting of the sisters. As for the high school, most of the scenes taking place there center around Lux’s infatuation with Trip Fontaine, the most popular boy in school. Trip is the ultimate 70s stud, and his first scene, set to Heart’s Magic Man, is instantly iconic. The visuals here are very unique and have an ethereal quality, and the sisters seem almost ghostly. The score, by French electronica artists Air, projects a fuzzy and nostalgic feeling that is helped by the low key dialogue and languorous pace. It also has another great and memorable prom night scene, although thankfully it doesn’t end quite like the one in Carrie

 

2. Mean Girls

Everyone worries about fitting in at some point, and Mean Girls taps into these nerves incredibly well. Lindsay Lohan stars as Cady, a homeschooled girl who transfers into public school and gets quite the culture shock. Cady inadvertently joins “The Plastics”, the queens of the campus who will stop at nothing to be the most popular, led by the catty Regina George. Rachel McAdams is great as Regina, and the other Plastics are just as good. Amanda Seyfried is the airheaded Karen and Lacey Chabert is Regina’s jealous sidekick Gretchen Wieners, and they are joined by the film’s writer, Tina Fey, who steals the show as the students’ calculus teacher. Amy Poehler is also fantastic as Regina’s mom, and she and Fey would later work together in Parks and Recreation. The movie is so packed with fun characters that it’s easy to forget that it’s also really sweet. The Plastics aren’t totally evil, and in fact, they’re just as human as the weirdos. Mean Girls is chock full of memorable scenes, from the Christmas talent competition to yet another great school dance scene, and should be watched by anyone who is going into, leaving, or currently in high school. 

 

1. Dazed and Confused

Not only is this a high school movie, but it also takes place in the 70s AND in Austin! Finding a movie as popular as this that’s filmed in this town is rare but here we have one. Directed by Richard Linklater, the film takes place on the last day of school and centers around a large ensemble of characters. For most of the actors, this would be their first film role, and many would go on to be big names in Hollywood, notably Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Mila Jovovich and of course Matthew McConaughey in arguably his most iconic role. Because it takes place in the 1970s, of course the soundtrack is wonderful. It’s nothing but 70s hit after 70s hit, and it’s a blast. But it never seems like an obvious period piece, and is easily the most relatable and realistic film here, at least for me. Nothing much happens, and we don’t have any earth shattering drama or death, just like in real life. The characters just talk, drive around, and party, and while that may seem boring, Linklater writes it perfectly, with each character coming off as acutely realistic and detailed. Everyone who watches Dazed and Confused knows someone like at least one of the characters here, and maybe you can even relate to one of them yourself. Linklater obviously drew from real life for the film and it shows. He directs it with perfect visual clarity, accurately capturing Austin landmarks like Top Notch Burgers and the iconic Moontowers in a way that no tourist could have done. A perfect movie that captures high school in a way that no other movie has, Dazed and Confused has a unique Austin charm that can’t be topped.

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