- Entertainment and Media
15 Of The Best Movies About High School
A 60-Year Retrospective
High school life and teenagers "coming of age" have long been popular movie themes. A lot of these types of movies either wax nostalgic about what is was like growing up in earlier times or are lighthearted comical farces about some dude trying to lose his virginity. Many of the best movies about high school are more realistic dramas that deal with some of the harsher realities of being a teenager in an inhospitable school environment and trying desperately to fit in.
Below are my top 15 picks for the best movies about high school which I assembled as follows. First, I chose at least one of what I consider to be the best movies about high school from each decade, starting with the 1950s. For this group, I limited them to ones that are set in the same era in which the film was made (e.g., if it was shot in the 1960s, then the setting is the 1960s). I ended up choosing a total of 10 high school movies of this type, with most coming from the 1980s and later.
During the early 1970s, there was a nostalgia craze in music, fashion, and movies, and since then, many fine movies have been made over the years about high school life set in earlier eras which were hard to pass up. So, I ended up adding another five of what I consider to be the best of this type, bringing my total list of best movies about high school to 15.
In compiling my list of high school movies (presented below in chronological order), I gave extra weight to those movies in which most, or at least a large part of the story, actually takes place in a school setting. Although there are several lighthearted comedies in the bunch, none paint an idyllic picture of high school life and adolescence (if there is such a thing). Many of these movies show the grittier side of high school, and while some may be disturbing in parts, all are highly memorable and most have received wide critical acclaim.
The above image is a scene from "The Breakfast Club" (1985) which can be purchased as a poster from allposters.com.
During which decade were you a senior in high school?
The Blackboard Jungle (1955)
"Blackboard Jungle" is a dark and disturbing look at day-to-day life in an inner city school that has run amok. Glenn Ford stars as Richard Dadier, a teacher at North Manual High School who has to deal with a classroom of violent and conniving juvenile delinquents, with no support from the school administration or faculty. This movie also co-stars Anne Francis, Louis Calhern, and a young Sidney Poitier who plays Gregory Miller, a student who acts as a ringleader for many of the student trouble makers. (Poitier will later go on to play a teacher who successfully reins in these same types of students in "To Sir With Love.")
"Blackboard Jungle" is based on the novel of the same name by Evan Hunter. It was ranked as the #1 best movie about high school by Newsweek/The Daily Beast. In 1955, this groundbreaking film received several Academy Award nominations. It famously opens and closes with "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley and His Comets, which helped popularize rock and roll (a then-new music genre) across the nation. In 2010, this movie's soundtrack was named as one of the Top 15 Most Influential Movie Soundtracks of all time by Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
To Sir With Love (1967)
In "To Sir With Love," Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, an engineer who has accepted what he expects will only be a temporary gig as a teacher in a tough school in the East End of London. Over time, Mr. Thackeray gains the respect of his unruly students and inspires them to better themselves. As he gets more personally involved in their day-to-day lives, the handsome Mr. Thackeray must fend off advances from a female student (played by Judy Geeson).
This classic and inspiring movie also co-stars Christian Roberts, Suzy Kendall, and 1960s pop star Lulu who performed the movie title song (which later tops the pop charts).
The Last Picture Show (1971)
The 1970s saw a spate of nostalgia movies about teenagers, high school, and coming of age. Released some two years prior to "American Graffiti," "The Last Picture Show" was one of the first movies of this type to appear on the silver screen.
This movie takes place over a one year period, from November 1951 to October 1952, in Anarene, Texas, a bleak and economically depressed small town in the middle of nowhere. The story revolves around the lives of several students at Anarene High School that include Sonny Crawford (played by Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (played Jeff Bridges), who are longtime best friends, and teenage femme fatale Jacy Farrow (played by Cybill Shepherd in her on-screen debut). This movie is a dreary melange of love triangles and romances gone bad amongst the main characters and various other supporting characters, including Ruth Popper (played by Cloris Leachman), the wife of the football coach, Coach Popper (played by Bill Thurman). "The Last Picture Show" is filmed to great effect in black and white to add to the movie's depressing atmosphere.
"The Last Picture Show" was adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Larry McMurtry of the same name. This movie also co-stars Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, and Clu Gulager. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, "The Last Picture Show" was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won for Best Supporting Actor (Ben Johnson) and Best Supporting Actress (Cloris Leachman).
American Graffiti (1973)
Of all the nostalgia movies made over the years about teenage life, "American Graffiti" is considered to be the number one movie of this genre. Set in Modesto, CA, this coming of age movie takes place during the summer of 1962. The story revolves mainly around Curt Henderson and Steve Bolander (played, respectively, by Richard Dreyfus and Ron Howard), two recent high school graduates who have to make some major life decisions, such as whether to attend college or stay behind in their small town and whether or not to remain with their girlfriends. This movie also co-stars Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Cindy Williams, and Wolfman Jack.
"American Graffiti" was co-written and directed by George Lucas. The film's soundtrack includes some 40 classic rock and roll songs from the 1950s and early 1960s, including Bill Haley's 1955 smash hit, "Rock Around The Clock" (which, due to the extreme popularity of this movie, resurfaced on the pop charts in the early 1970s). "American Graffiti" received several Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. The long-running TV sitcom, "Happy Days," which co-starred Ron Howard, was created as a spin-off from this movie.
Cooley High (1975)
Set in 1964 in Chicago, "Cooley High" is a story about two black high school students at Edwin G. Cooley High School, Leroy "Preach" Jackson (played by Glynn Turman) and Richard "Cochise" Morris (played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), who are best friends. One day, the duo decides to cut class and go to the zoo. They are joined by two other friends, Pooter and Tyrone. Through various twists of fate, their lives go down the tubes as one misfortune after another keeps befalling them.
Regarded as a classic of black cinema, "Cooley High" is based upon the actual high school in Chicago with the same name. The soundtrack of mostly 1960s Motown hits gives this movie a really authentic feel, and it also includes G.C. Cameron's highly popular "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday."
"Carrie" is one of very few high school movies made in the 1970s that also takes place in the 1970s. In this terrifying tale, the title character, played by Sissy Spacek, possesses telekinetic powers and leads a miserable life. She is a social outcast who is relentlessly tormented by her classmates, and her home life is also made miserable by her overbearing mother (played by Piper Laurie). At the prom, everything comes to a head for the shy and quiet teen, and she finally snaps. This movie also co-stars Betty Buckley, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, William Katt, John Travolta, P.J. Soles and Priscilla Pointer.
"Carrie" is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. Directed by Brian De Palma, this critically acclaimed movie is a supernatural and horrific look at what can happen when extreme bullying goes too far. "Carrie" was very well received upon its release and it is regarded as one of the best movies of 1976. "Carrie" has received many honors and accolades, including Academy Awards nominations for Best Actress (Sissy Spacek) and Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie).
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
"Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is a comedy that follows the everyday lives of several students over the course of one school year. This movie is unusual for comedies in that it is based on the real life observations of Cameron Crowe, a freelance writer for Rolling Stone magazine who went undercover at Clairemont High School in San Diego, CA. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" co-stars Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus, Ray Walston, Forest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage, Anthony Edwards.
This movie really captured the feel of Southern California high schools in the 1980s, and it has the remarkable distinction of being selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The Outsiders (1983)
"The Outsiders" takes place in Tulsa, OK in the mid 1960s. Much of the drama centers around the on-going rivalry between two cliques or gangs known as the Greasers and the Socs (pronounced "soashes"). The Greasers are the poorer and tougher kids from the "wrong side of the tracks," and the Socs are the rich kids. Things get violent between the Greasers and the Socs, which starts when Greaser members Ponyboy (played by C. Thomas Howell) and Johnny (played by Ralph Macchio) are almost fatally attacked by the Socs with switchblades. The violence escalates to the point where Greaser members have to hide out of town and members of both gangs end up getting killed. This movie also co-stars Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, and Leif Garrett.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, "The Outsiders" is a movie adaptation of the novel of the same name by S. E. Hinton (who was only 15 when she began writing it.)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
"The Breakfast Club" is a comedy about five high school kids at Shermer High School, each one from a different clique, who must spend a Saturday night in detention together. As they exchange stories, they get to know one another and break down their barriers. Claire Standish (the "princess"), Allison Reynolds (the "basket case"), Andrew Clark (the "jock"), Brian Johnson (the "nerd"), and John Bender (the "outcast") are played, respectively, by Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, and Judd Nelson. Paul Gleeson also co-stars as Principal Vernon.
"The Breakfast Club" was directed by John Hughes who also made a number of other similar films (e.g., "Sixteen Candles," "Weird Science," and "Pretty In Pink") in which many of the above-mentioned actors also had roles. Many teenage and coming-of-age movies were made in the 1980s, and "The Breakfast Club" is considered to be one of the greatest high school films of all time. It is ranked at #1 on Entertainment Weekly's list of best high school movies.
The Breakfast Club (1985) - Trailer
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is a comedy about Ferris Bueller (played by Matthew Broderick), a plucky high school senior who is bound and determined to take the day off from school, much to the consternation of his school's steely-eyed Dean of Students Edward Rooney (played by Jeffrey Jones) who spends the day tracking him down all over town. This movie also co-stars Mia Sara, Alan Ruck, and Jennifer Grey as his disgruntled sister Jeanie.
Directed by John Hughes, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" inspired the short-lived TV sitcom, "Ferris Bueller," which debuted in the fall of 1990 and was cancelled within its first season. This movie was ranked at #1 on Moviefone's list of Best High School Movies of All Time.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
"Dead Poets Society" takes place in 1959 at the Welton Academy, a highly conservative all-boys preparatory school in Vermont. This movie stars Robin Williams as the beloved new English teacher, John Keating, who inspires his students through poetry and exhorts them to "Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary." Unfortunately, Keating's non-traditional teaching methods do not sit well with some of the school staff and parents.
Directed by Peter Weir, "Dead Poets Society" was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Robin Williams), and won Best Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman).
"Clueless" is a comedy set in Beverly Hills about a high school girl named Cher (played by Alicia Silverstone). Cher, who comes from a wealthy family, is pretty, confident and highly popular, but she is superficial and loves to shop. She is no snob, however, and she always seems to see the best in people, which makes her well liked by most of her circle. This movie also co-stars Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Donald Faison, Breckin Meyer, and Dan Hedaya as Cher's father.
Based loosely on Jane Austen's 1815 novel, "Emma," "Clueless" was a box office smash and well received by critics. It spawned a TV sitcom of the same name the following year.
Dangerous Minds (1995)
"Dangerous Minds" stars Michelle Pfeiffer as LouAnne Johnson, a retired Marine who goes to work as a teacher at Parkmont High School in California. Johnson soon finds out that her students are all tough and hardened kids from lower-class and underprivileged backgrounds, many involved with gangs and drugs. She uses unconventional means from her days as a Marine to try to reach her students and gain their respect.
"Dangerous Minds" is based on the autobiography, "My Posse Don't Do Homework," by former U.S. Marine LouAnne Johnson, who took up teaching after retiring from the military. Although this movie was not well received by critics when first released, it became a box office success. Shortly thereafter, "Dangerous Minds" spawned a short-lived TV series by the same name.
Mean Girls (2004)
"Mean Girls" is a comedy that stars Lindsay Lohan as Cady Heron, the 16-year-old home-schooled daughter of zoologist parents (played by Ana Gasteyer and Neil Flynn) who recently moved from Africa to Evanston, IL. Cady is a good student who excels in math, and she find herself totally at a loss when it come to the cliques at the public high school in which she is now enrolled. She is warned by her friends Janis (played by Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (played by Daniel Franzese) to avoid the Plastics, a clique made up of three mean, blond, and highly superficial girls led by Regina George (played by Rachel McAdams). The Plastics take a liking to Cady, however, and Janis, who wants to get revenge on Regina, uses Cady as a way to get to the Plastics. This movie also co-stars Lizzy Caplan, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried, and Tina Fey as math teacher Ms. Norbury.
Tina Fey wrote the screenplay for "Mean Girls" which is based in part on "Queen Bees and Wannabes" by Rosalind Wiseman, a non-fiction book that describes how female high school social cliques operate and how they can adversely affect girls.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
"Napoleon Dynamite" is a comedy starring Jon Heder in the title role. Napoleon is a geeky, artistic, and highly imaginative high school kid who lives with his grandmother, his 32-year old brother, Kip, and their pet llama, Tina, in Preston, Idaho. This movie is a funny account of all his trials and tribulations as he copes with school bullies and makes friends. Also co-stars Jon Gries, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino, Aaron Ruell, Diedrich Bader, and Haylie Duff.