Thinking about back-to-school season, I compiled a list of favorite classroom movies and realized that almost all of them have female protagonists.
That could be a symptom of Hollywood misogyny — money men have always been willing to toss aside women of experience for new blood. But an unintended benefit is that the movies have given us a lot of compelling female students (along with a few dandy male ones, such as “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” hero Greg Heffley). Just as girls mature faster than boys, maybe there are more good high school movies featuring girls because girls get better faster.
The genre has not done as well by kids of color, as evidenced by a BET list of the best Black high school movies that resorts to including three “white savior” movies that have little to do with minority students. Fortunately, documentaries (including “Hoop Dreams,” a masterpiece) and college films such as Spike Lee’s “School Daze” have filled in a few gaps.
One of the more exciting aspects of school-set movies is that they showcase young talent. These projects tend to be made on tight budgets — no one ever expects them to be huge hits, though the creators of “American Graffiti” and “Grease” would like to have a word about that. As a result, they often offer first looks at novice actors who’ll go on to long careers.
Think of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” an early vehicle for not only Jennifer Jason Leigh but also a trio of future best actor Oscar winners: Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn and Forest Whitaker. It’s the gift that keeps on giving behind the camera, too, with director Amy Heckerling going on to make “Clueless” and writer Cameron Crowe making “Almost Famous,” “Jerry Maguire” and others.
Similarly, “Dazed and Confused” offered an early glimpse of Oscar winners-in-waiting Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger. “Kids” boasts the debuts of Rosario Dawson, Harmony Korine and Chloë Sevigny. “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” and others are reminders that you can trace many top actors’ beginnings to a high school film.
Even a dud such as the original “Endless Love” features, way down on the credits, the movie debut of Tom Cruise. Stick with the school-themed movies below, though; there isn’t a dud in the bunch.
We don’t talk enough about how incredible Alicia Silverstone is in this sweet/tart update of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Emma is called Cher here and it’s a really difficult role — she seems like a judgmental airhead although she’s actually smart and compassionate — but Silverstone captures it all. (Anya Taylor-Joy, who did not nail it in this spring’s “Emma,” should have taken notes.) It’s also a pitch-perfect portrait of high school life in the exact moment when “as if!” was the most withering thing a person could say.
Maggie Smith, way before she became a Dame, won her first Oscar as a tragically deluded Scottish teacher in a drama about the impact of charismatic mentors, both for good and ill. Behind its stiff upper lip, the movie (available in its entirety on YouTube) is almost a bloodless girls’ school equivalent of “Lord of the Flies,” with Smith’s endlessly fascinating lecturer unaware that the lessons she’s passing on to her smartest student will doom her to the same loneliness that Brodie endures.
Like Silverstone, Reese Witherspoon creates an indelible portrait of a high school upperclasswoman, albeit a much less likable one. On the surface, Witherspoon’s class-president candidate Tracy Flick seems like your basic do-gooding overachiever, but Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s clever script reveals that her cheery surface rests on a fault line of anger and pain.
“My teen angst has a body count!” cries Veronica (Winona Ryder) in an acidic satire that now requires a trigger warning for high school violence. Ryder and Christian Slater give career-best performances in a movie that launched dozens of copycats, some of which (“Mean Girls”) are almost as good. And, perhaps with an assist from Replacements superfan Ryder, it takes place at Westerburg [sic] High School.
Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired drama is undoubtedly the toughest watch on this list. A sickly suspense develops as we realize that a seemingly ordinary day at a high school is about to erupt in violence. But Van Sant’s observational approach and the naturalistic performances, mostly by nonprofessionals, provide a revealing glimpse of campus life.
The charter-school movement it endorses has had its ups and downs, but this inspiring drama shows education from corners we don’t often see depicted by Hollywood: the parents (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the teachers (Viola Davis) who are trying to make sure children get the start they need in order to succeed.
When it comes to John Hughes’ high school comedies, it’s a pick-’em scenario. All have their merits and demerits (his rare nonwhite characters are not depicted with much sensitivity). “The Breakfast Club” is more concerned with high school hierarchy, but I prefer this coming-of-age charmer, with Molly Ringwald at her incandescent best as a girl whose family has spaced her 16th birthday. The Cusacks, John and Joan, make early appearances.