Love it or hate it, the high school years help shape us into the people we are today. And with all the hormones, the trouble-making, the misplaced sense of entitlement, the confusion, and sexual exploration—movies about high school make for pretty damn good entertainment. Whether they bring back nightmares or the best times of our lives, there’s no denying that a good movie about those formidable years is something to which almost all of us can relate.
Regardless of where you stood in your lunch table ecosystem, let’s take some time reminisce on that analog feel of first kisses, pep rallies, and simpler problems that seemed so big at the time. Take a walk down memory lane with these classic teen flicks.
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Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the perfect contemporary teen sex comedy which follows, naturally, two teenage boys who vow to lose their virginity before graduation. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera play fictional versions of the screenwriters (with Rogen appearing in the film as a bumbling cop), while Emma Stone delivers a star-making turn as Hill’s love interest.
High school is literally hell in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel. Sissy Spacek earned her first Oscar nomination for this horror film, playing the outcast Carrie White who is abused by her evangelical mother and bullied by her mean classmates. But she eventually has her revenge when she uses her telekinetic powers against her enemies.
Bring It On
Molly Ringwald stars in this John Hughes-directed classic as a misfit teen whose 16th birthday is completely ruined when her parents overlook her in favor of her sister’s upcoming wedding. Add to that an endless string of humiliations, from bullying classmates to a insufferably horny geek who won’t leave her alone.
Set in mid-’60s Chicago, Cooley High follows a group of friends who are celebrating the end of the school year—an exciting time that is put to a halt when two of the group are falsely accused of stealing a car.
The classic musical starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John is a crowd-pleasing nostalgia fest for the blissfully innocent 1950s. The duo play an unlikely romantic pair—the greaser Danny Zuko and the virginal Sandy—whose classmates scheme to keep them from finding true love together.
Years before Star Wars, George Lucas wrote and directed this Oscar-nominated ensemble comedy about a group of high school graduates who spend one last night together in 1962 cruising around and reflecting on their future. The inspiration for the long-running series Happy Days, the all-star cast includes Ron Howard and launched the careers of Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, and Suzanne Somers.
The Last Picture Show
Nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture (and winning two for Best Supporting Actor and Actress), Peter Bogdanovich’s stark adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel remains one of the most realistic and somber reflections of teenage life. Set in a small north Texas town that’s on the brink of ruin, the film stars Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, and Cybil Shepard as high school seniors who must reckon with their dying hometown and the paths their futures have in store for them.
This disarmingly dark comedy remains one of the ballsiest teen movies ever made. Winona Ryder stars as the whip-smart Veronica Sawyer, a popular girl who hates her best friends (a trio of queen bees, all named Heather). Her life spins out of control when she falls for the new kid at school—the trench coat-wearing, gun-toting J.D., played by Christian Slater—who convinces her to kill off her clique
Rebel Without a Cause
Nicolas Ray’s searing drama essentially invented the American teenager—and teenage angst—and made a Hollywood icon out of its star, James Dean. Dean plays a Los Angeles teenager who rebels against his strict parents and becomes friends with the lonely Plato (Sal Mineo) and the defiant Judy (Natalie Wood)
The high school sports movie—Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Varsity Blues—is a film staple, but none have the heart and soul of Steve James’s stirring documentary about two teenagers from Chicago who are recruited by a scout to attend a privileged (and predominantly white) suburban high school to participate in its basketball program.
Tina Fey’s sole screenplay is based on the sociological study Queen Bees and Wannabes, which she ingeniously turned into a hilarious comedy that stars Lindsay Lohan as new girl Cady who is tapped by her high school’s reigning popular girls to join their clique. As she attempts to dismantle their power, she only becomes more ruthless and mean herself.
To Sir, With Love
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Undoubtedly the best high school movie that doesn’t even take place in high school, this John Hughes comedy stars Matthew Broderick in the role that made him a star. The titular character skips out of school for a day with his girlfriend and best friend, which sees the trio embarking on a madcap tour of Chicago while the school principal—and Ferris’s surly sister—are hellbent on catching him playing hooky.
Amy Heckerling wrote and directed this brilliant teen comedy, inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma, which stars Alicia Silverstone in her most iconic performance as a ditzy, if well-meaning, Beverly Hills high school student who weaves a complicated matchmaking web—learning that it’s ultimately better to be selfless than selfish.
Reese Witherspoon delivers her best performance in Alexander Payne’s dark comedy, playing the ambitious Tracy Flick, who is eager to become student body president. Matthew Broderick sheds his youthful charm to play the social studies teacher who will stop at nothing to stop the teenage girl from achieving her goal—a scheme that throws the all-American high school into turmoil.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
This film marked the directorial debut of Amy Heckerling and the screenwriting debut of Cameron Crowe. Based on the latter’s undercover reportage at a San Diego high school, Fast Times at Ridgemont High explores the ins and outs of teen sexuality in comically honest fashion. The film also launched the careers of Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicolas Cage, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, and Judge Reinhold.
Dazed and Confused
Richard Linklater’s comedy follows the American Graffiti framework, examining the various social circles of the rising freshman and senior classes of an Austin, Texas high school on its last day in 1976. Like other great teen ensemble films, it marked early appearances from greats like Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and Ben Affleck.
The Breakfast Club
Five high school students from varying social classes—a brain (Anthony Michael Hall), an athlete (Emilio Estevez), a basket case (Ally Sheedy), a princess (Molly Ringwald), and a criminal (Judd Nelson)—spend a fateful Saturday detention together in John Hughes’s classic teen drama. Together, the five students learn they have much more in common than they thought.
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