To coincide with the release of Paper Towns, the Nat Wolff and Cara Delevigne starring adaptation of John Green’s coming of age novel, I take a look at the very best High School set movies. Although in fairness Paper Towns never really lives up to its brief, far too often embracing irritating indie sentiments in favour of allowing the very good coming of age aspects of the film to come to the fore, it did inspire me to think back to all the High School movies I have held dearly for so long. Without further ado here are my top five.
5: Dazed & Confused (1993)
Richard Linklater’s early film is on the surface a sprawling, uncoordinated mess with very little tying it together and just a series of random arcs clumsily strung into a feature film. Look a little closer however and the film is a lot more than the nostalgia factor that initially drew me into the film. In choosing to show such a wide expanse of High School society what Linklater does is create a film that speaks to absolutely everyone in some way or another. This is not just another film in which the dweeby kids get one over on the jocks, although that does obviously occur, but this is a film that does nothing other than revel in the exuberance and relative innocence of youth. Throughout his career Linklater has exhibited a great taste in his soundtracks and this period setting offers him great opportunities he takes with aplomb. There are a number of familiar faces including Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich and most memorably Matthew McConaughey to look out for and marvel at how young they look, but for such a young cast the film is remarkably played. Linklater’s next film, Everybody Wants Some, claims to be a ‘spiritual sequel’ to this, a prospect that is truly exciting.
4: Mean Girls (2004)
It may now seem like a mere footnote in the incredibly troubled story of Lindsay Lohan but it is worth remembering just how snarky and of its time this film was. Over ten years on its depiction of the ‘Queen Bee’ side of High School is likeable while still being sufficiently harsh and judgemental of a particularly nasty aspect of American youth. Tina Fey’s screenplay showcases her comedic talents while cleverly making the audience’s introduction into this world through a newcomer’s eyes, with the jungle metaphor increasingly well chosen. Lohan is very good and one can only wonder quite where her career may have gone had she stayed grounded, and she is more than matched by Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert and Amanda Seyfried as her ‘Plastic’ cohorts. Even now the term ‘Burn Book’ is still heavily present in teen lexicon and the scene in which it emerges, and the wonderful sequence that follows really is this film’s high point. If I have one quibble with the film it would be that Fey’s script goes along with the tropes of the genre a little too much, and the Prom finale is all too predictable, but this does not alter one’s enjoyment of the film.
3: Heathers (1988)
Heathers still shocks today at how nihilistically it looks at the American High School, choosing to portray it as a place of untold horrors for the 99% who simply do not fit into the social moulds the 1% have chosen. If the ‘Queen Bee’ roles in Mean Girls are harsh then Heathers takes a nastily savage viewpoint on the terror that they have reigned upon countless unfortunate souls. The film’s blackly comic tone is expertly managed and prevents the film from slipping into a tar pit of deep unpleasantness. At the height of her popularity Winona Ryder is a suitably dangerous presence as Veronica, the insidious presence within the titular group taking them down while still one of them. The film’s heightened sense of reality leaves a sense of a time gone by, with the dress and love of croquet of the Heathers giving a sense of Victorian aristocracy rather than the more everyday American teen life John Hughes had been so effectively tapping into in the previous five years. Christian Slater has never topped his performance as J.D. in this film. Less an allusion to the Rebel Without A Cause actor than a direct homage, Slater’s performance here is so cool it hurts, and makes his later slide into Jack Nicholson aping parody even harder to bear. With an ending both bleak and uplifting, this is a breathtakingly ambitious effort.
2: Election (1999)
Sideways and Nebraska director Alexander Payne made his first masterpiece with this political drama set in the strange confines of a High School Class Presidential Race. Ferris Bueller actor Matthew Broderick subverts his free spirited 1980s icon with stilted, beige yet likeable teacher Mr McAllister, who is all too aware at the dangers of the Tracy Flicks of this world gaining too much power and influence, even in this most minor of arenas. The film’s joy is that it very quickly becomes a farce as McAllister’s efforts lead him more and more into trouble, and he slides further and further into personal and professional oblivion. Reese Witherspoon may be better known for Legally Blonde and Walk The Line but to this writer Tracy Flick is her greatest creation. Despite being such an open and likeable persona the audience immediately dislikes her, even before her actions stray from ambiguous to immoral. This being Alexander Payne there is a darkness to the film, not to the same extent that Heathers displays but all the same this is not an out and out comedy despite being constantly funny. Chris Klein gives quite probably his best performance as the dim-witted jock manoeuvred by McAllister to challenge Tracy as a puppet candidate, yet in between two tower house efforts he barely registers. All the same this is a far cleverer movie than it ever needed to be with an ending still pertinent a decade and a half on.
1: The Breakfast Club (1985)
If the truth be told this entire list could have been made from John Hughes movies but, having limited myself to one, this was the clear choice. A great display of limited filmmaking, utilising the all-day detention concept to bring the five characters together, confine them to one location for the entirety of the film, and build a movie less around actions and more around conversations. The leads were all key players in the ‘Brat Pack’ movement of the 1980s and here all play very much to type as ‘The Princess’ (Ringwald), ‘The Athlete’ (Estevaz), ‘The Brain’ (Hall), ‘The Basket Case’ (Sheedy) and ‘The Criminal’ (Nelson). Why does this work so well, creating what I would term filmmaking perfection? The answer lies in the message and the understanding John Hughes showed for the teenage demographic throughout the 1980s. Here he understands that even if from the outside the jocks and the princesses appear to have it made, the criminals do not care about their perception by others, the nerds are happy to just avoid the cool kids and the weirdos have their own circles to stick to, every teenager has feelings, anxieties and issues that they have to deal with day in day out. The film interweaves these five disparate personalities expertly, doesn’t rush their acceptance and understanding of one another, and doesn’t offer them solutions to their problems at the end, merely coping methods. There have been few speeches as brilliant as ‘The Breakfast Club’ letter, while the closing scene is simply one of cinema’s most iconic shots, and offers a simple reason why I love Don’t You (Forget About Me) quite as much as I do. A true piece of classic cinema.