High school movies will always be getting made by Hollywood, because we can all relate to the frustrations and foibles of the high school experience – except perhaps, ironically, the privately tutored child actors who star in them. There are high school movies that are quirky, funny, tragic, gut-wrenching; high school movies that incorporate elements of horror or sci-fi or fantasy; high school movies that tell personal stories or adapt old books to a modern day high school setting – whichever way you spin it, the high school comedy movie subgenre has given us some truly great movies over the years. So many to choose from! Anyway, here are the 10 greatest high school movies ever made.
10. Bring It On
A high school comedy movie about cheerleaders starring Kirsten Dunst should’ve sucked, right? If you picture that objectively on paper, it sounds terrible. But this is actually the premise of one of the greatest high school movies ever made. It’s aware of its own silliness and it has some great female roles, and now, almost twenty years after its initial release, Bring It On still remains a cult classic. It was directed by Peyton Reed, who would go on to make Yes Man starring Jim Carrey and take over the MCU’s Ant-Man from the great Edgar Wright and managed to turn it into a moderate successful. Bring It On is still his finest hour. The movie was such a success and struck such a chord with audiences that it spawned five terrible direct to DVD sequels that had nothing to do with the original. They only made those to cash in on the established fan base of the Bring It On title. Nothing could top the original, though. Its main strength is that it was written by a woman, Jessica Bendinger. See, there’s a severe lack of opportunities for female screenwriters in Hollywood – but it’s female screenwriters who know how to tell good stories about women. That much is clear from Bring It On.
Wes Anderson is one of the quirkiest filmmakers working today. If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t understand what it means for a movie to be quirky, show them twenty seconds of film footage that was directed by Wes Anderson. Every movie he makes is very precisely composed to be symmetrical and his characters don’t talk like real people talk and his color palette is really, really bright. But that’s not a bad thing, because there are few directors who care more about their work than Anderson does. Everything that’s in a Wes Anderson movie is in there for a reason. He’s a brilliant artist. So, if you’re watching one of his movies, you know that at least you’re watching a piece that’s been carefully considered by its creator, and not phoned in by some hack like Michael Bay. Anderson tends to make movies that can be technically classified as comedies, but whether or not they’re laugh out loud funny is debatable – it differs from movie to movie. But Rushmore, his high school movie about a peculiar teenager and a wealthy industrialist who fall for the same teacher, is definitely his funniest movie. It’s full of hilarious lines – and the story is compelling. Plus, it helped to relaunch Bill Murray’s career as a respected indie movie actor.
8. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
The way that Fast Times at Ridgemont High was written makes it a very special high school movie. It wasn’t just some screenwriter who sat down and hashed out a script with some jokes and some romance and some character tropes in it. This was truly unique. Cameron Crowe, who would eventually go on to direct Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, spent a year undercover as a student in Clairemont High School in San Diego, where he was secretly using his fake friendships and experiences for research. He wrote a non-fiction book about all the things that happened to him during that year, and then they decided to adapt the book into a movie with a screenplay by Crowe and that became Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Structurally, it’s all over the place, but the movie is full of hilarious moments and it never stops being entertaining or memorable. The cast is fantastic, too. Like Dazed and Confused, there are so many great actors who got roles in this movie at the very beginning of their career: Nicolas Cage, Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz – oh, and Sean Penn plays a stoner! This is an awesome movie.
There are entirely too few dark comedy movies to come out of Hollywood. A lot of people have a twisted sense of humor and there aren’t many comedies that indulge that sense of humor. But with Election, the dark tale of political intrigue and sexual blackmail and pedophilia that also happens to be a high school comedy, the brilliant Alexander Payne gave us one of the darkest and funniest movies ever made. It was initially a box office bomb, but it is a terrific movie. The lead performance by Reese Witherspoon as the preppy and ambitious and sociopathic Tracy Flick is endlessly amusing and devilishly watchable. Matthew Broderick is also great as her adversary, Jim McAllister. It’s a fun little bit of irony that the guy who became famous as the rebellious student who infuriates his teachers (see the number one spot for more information) and later went on to play a teacher who is respected by his students – the total polar opposite of his most iconic role. Movies about politics generally aren’t very palatable to a wide audience, but the high school setting and relatable, interconnected teen stories make this a particularly watchable satire. That Oscar nomination for screenwriting was well deserved.
There are plenty of angles you can take with a high school movie. You can do it as a story of young, unbridled love, or a story of friendship among the greatest friends you’ll ever have. Maybe you take a high concept genre angle with it, like Back to the Future, or a more contemplative and quirky and heartfelt approach, like Juno. Maybe you’ll try and emulate the style of the undefeated heavyweight champion of high school movies, John Hughes, and combine genuinely relatable characters with sight gags and moments of classic comedy (“Here’s where Cameron goes berserk,” as Ferris Bueller breaks the fourth wall to tell us). Maybe you can tell a story that is personal and autobiographical to you, like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg did with Superbad. With Clueless, someone had the very interesting idea to adapt the Jane Austen novel Emma as a high school movie. The 1800s setting in the fictional village of Highbury was switched for a ‘90s setting in Beverly Hills. This was an interesting concept, but it all could’ve gone very wrong. Luckily, Amy Heckerling’s direction and screenplay, combined with terrific performances by a cast led by Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, and Brittany Murphy.
5. The Breakfast Club
John Hughes is the king of high school movies. He made so many great ones throughout his career, with the likes of Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles – and of course, The Breakfast Club. We’ve all been stuck in detention with an eclectic group of kids who, under any other set of circumstances, would never be seen in the same room together. John Hughes realized this and thought it would make a fantastic premise for a movie, an idea which definitely panned out. These five kids not only make you laugh, but also make you feel. They transcend the cliched character types of the nerd and the jock and the hot girl and the bad boy etc. and become real human beings with real problems and real emotions. For example, Judd Nelson’s rebellious character John Bender, the bad boy, is explored to get down to the root of why exactly he is the bad boy. He has an abusive dad who burned his arm with a lit cigar after he spilled paint in the garage. This is serious stuff that really digs deep emotionally, and it’s one of the greatest high school movies ever made.
4. Napoleon Dynamite
The first word in quirky teen comedies, Napoleon Dynamite is one of those movies that is so special and so unique that it inspired a slew of copycats that tried to emulate its particular brand of hysterical weirdness. It’s like Pulp Fiction or Fight Club – everyone wishes they had thought of it or they had the vision and the voice to do it, but no one but the Hess brothers actually did. From Napoleon’s troubled romantic entanglements to his bickering with his brother Kip to his strained relationship with his pet alpaca Tina, who refuses to eat the food that he feeds her, everything in Napoleon Dynamite is hilarious and original and the idiosyncratic voice of the unusual Hess brothers shines through. Jon Heder gives a fiercely funny and watchable performance in the lead role, too. He disappears into this role and turns this character, who is, for all intents and purposes, a total jerk, into a genuinely likable person. You know from the very first moments of the movie, as plates of food present the opening titles to you written in ketchup, that this is something completely different from anything you’ve ever seen before – and that’s a beautiful thing.
When Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were thirteen years old and growing up together in Canada, they decided to try their hand at writing a feature length movie script – that script would go on to become Superbad. It wouldn’t end up getting produced until they were in their twenties, but the years of refining the plot structure and the jokes and the character development clearly show in the movie. They must’ve written hundreds of pages for this passion project of theirs, and they left only the funniest and deepest stuff for the final version. The number of memorable jokes and quotable lines in comedy movies is usually like three, but in Superbad, that list is endless! Jonah Hill and Michael Cera are a perfectly matched screen duo to bring these Rogen and Goldberg’s movie counterparts to life, while wild card Christopher Mintz-Plasse gets the biggest laughs in his movie debut in the iconic role of Fogell, better known as McLovin. So few high school movies accurately capture the sweary banter of teenagers, but Superbad is right on the money. The supporting cast is rounded out by some hilarious and talented comic players, too, with Rogen joining Bill Hader to play a pair of irresponsible cops (seriously, those two should star in another movie together, or Officers Michaels and Slater should get their own movie). Plus, a stellar turn by Joe Lo Truglio in a bit part as a creepy convict is definitive proof that there are no small parts, only small actors (“So, are you guys on MySpace, or…?”).
2. Mean Girls
Mean Girls succeeds at being a hilarious female-led comedy filled with strong roles for women by following one simple principle: if you want your movie to have strong, real, relatable female characters, get a woman to write it. It’s that simple. And yet, it’s a formula that Hollywood wouldn’t start to follow until years later, with terrific female-led comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Sisters that were all written by women. Mean Girls has a brilliant cast – Lindsay Lohan at the height of her abilities, Rachel McAdams at the start of her career, Amanda Seyfried on fine form as a more dimensional take on the ‘dumb blonde’ trope – but a lot of its merit is due to Tina Fey’s screenplay, which is jam packed with hysterical lines as well as jokes that make you think (along with the occasional splash of really dark humor), and also has a tight narrative structure and a compelling emotional hook. Most women – hell, most people – would rank Mean Girls among their favorite movies of all time, because it manages to be a zany high school comedy about the hot girls versus the nerdy girls without feeling like a guilty pleasure
1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ferris Bueller is the guy that every teenager wishes they could be – cool, laid-back, popular, loved by everyone. Meanwhile, Cameron Frye is the guy that most teenagers really are – anxious, neurotic, depressed, pessimistic, miserable. On the surface, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off might look like it’s about three people who ditch school and screw around for a day, but it’s so much more than that. It digs so much deeper than that. It’s one of the funniest movies ever made, but it’s also really sad and touching in some parts – and very philosophical. It makes you think about life! While you’re being entertained for an hour and a half or so, you’re also being reminded of a very important tenet of life: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” That line gets quoted a lot and it’s placed on all the lists of the best movie quotes of all time, but it’s also important to think about the meaning of it. What Ferris is telling us is that we need to chill out and take a few moments to stop and smell the roses, otherwise we’ll die full of regret. That’s pretty darn deep for an ‘80s high school comedy.