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Getting Schooled: Classroom Movies

by on September 8, 2009
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If she can do for the raunchy horror flick what she did for quick witted, smart ass teenage girls – screenwriter Diablo Cody’s (Juno) new film, “Jennifer’s Body,” starring Megan Fox as just another incredibly beautiful average high school girl who has to deal with midterms and man-eating, opens Sept. 18.

Indeed, films featuring the angst of those still chained to the classroom are beloved long after graduation. The angst of adolescence takes many forms – sexual frustration, intellectual isolation, relationships and, well, good clean debauchery… But these movies build a very important genre, because they are inherently relatable.

Who has not struggled with coming into their own, finding their individuality in a world where the order of the day is to fit in? Who hasn’t struggled with circumstances, whether it’s a learning disability or abundant poverty – each in their own way serving as the obstacle so many a protagonist must endure before the crescendo of the third act.

So, in honor of the start of a new school year and in anticipation of Cody’s next film – here is a look at some of those films that make excellent use of the classroom, and are definitely worth putting off homework for.

The Breakfast Club 

School movies

 There’s no getting around it, John Hughes helms the quintessential high school movie that embraced a generation and influenced all of those to follow.  Spanning the course of a single Saturday in detention, “The Breakfast Club” looks at the social being of five teenagers from completely different social classes.  From Judd Nelson’s punk rebel and Emilio Estevez’s not-so-golden quarterback, to Molly Ringwald’s super social Claire, Ally Sheedy’s alienated Allison Reynolds and Anthony Michael Hall’s lovable nerd, every inch of this movie is relatable and classic, including Paul Gleason’s gruff and irritable Mr. Vernon. It is the reigning king of high school drama for capturing the essence of teenage identity in five classes, the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal and bringing them together is a way so beautiful – the only thing better than to see how they would react to each other at school the following Monday is that Hughes leaves that entirely up to the viewer. Fans will also enjoy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Dangerous Minds 

School movies 2

Before such films where a blasé, white female naiveté steps into a multi-cultural, inner city classroom only to be challenged by culture shock and hip-hop, stereotypical gang violence and sexual harassment became routine – there was Michelle Pfeiffer and Coolio and frankly, hearing “Gangster’s Paradise” and watching Pfeiffer head to class behind a chain linked fence was the whole point in watching this movie that so many have mimicked many a time over.  Pfeiffer plays a teacher who struggles to get her problematic and therefore all but abandoned students to embrace education.  With a little help from Dylan Thomas, her megawatt smile and a surprising bit of sexual tension with one of her bad boy students – this otherwise mediocre film gets a passing grade. Fans will also enjoy “Freedom Writers.”

Lean on Me 

School movies Lean on Me 

While on the subject of inner city kids struggling for a better education and to beat their oppressive odds – this 1989 film starring the commanding Morgan Freeman never fails to get a rallying reaction.  Freeman plays real life principal Joe Clark, who after being thrown out of Eastside High School for seemingly political reasons in the 70s is asked to come back to manage the staff and student body after the school turns into a virtual playground for deviant behavior.  There are plenty of pregnant teens, outcasts, gangsters and drug dealers roaming the halls as are a few lackluster educators – but Freeman utterly inhabits the bullhorn wielding, drill sergeanty principal who ultimately lifts the school and its students to unprecedented academic success.  Many a note have been sent to favorite teachers across America after watching this one. Fans will also enjoy “Stand and Deliver.”

The Outsiders 

 SChool movies Outsiders

 Sort of an odd one for this list – since none of these guys are in school.  But that’s sort of the point – and it is the one book that every high school student is forced to read.  So it has a very fair influence in the world of this particular genre.  In the story of the studious but reluctant Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) and his band of brothers – a virtual calendar of former Teen Beat cover boys, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez and Matt Dillon, school plays a second to survival. Ponyboy is encouraged to go back to the classroom, but he can’t escape the brutal life he’s living at home, fighting for respect on the gritty city streets, entertaining the affections of a divine, young Cherry Valance (Diane Lane), witnessing crimes and even losing those he loves to violent destiny. How does one not watch this movie?


School movies Heathers

In high school there are those who are tormented and those who torment.  No two navigate such waters as beautifully as Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in this cult classic. The Heathers have everything especially the high school equivalent of power – and they don’t mind wielding it in any way possible. And not a single high school student hasn’t in some way experienced the torturous effects of cliquedom.  So what more to want than watch it be taken away with delicious deviant vigor? Fans will also enjoy “Mean Girls” and “Carrie.”

Dead Poets Society

 School movies Dead Poets

Robin Williams as a prolific and influential poetry teacher.  Enough said.  Even intellectuals have their troubles when it comes to fitting in and feeling comfortable with themselves.  Dead Poets Society didn’t just attack that angle of studious anguish, it brought it to life with intense performances by the entire cast and the words of the poets their characters honored. Fans will also enjoy “The Emperor’s Club.”

Fast Times At Ridgemont High

 School Movies Fast Times

And then there’s the lighter side of school.  Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh – in Cameron Crowe’s unforgettable look at teenage life, lust and general merriment. The film really comes down to one word: Spicoli.  Fans will also enjoy “Dazed and Confused.”

Never Been Kissed

 School movies never

Yes there are plenty of the ‘go back to school as a grown up and relive all your teenage embarrassment’ movies (uh, “17 Again” anyone?). What’s different about Drew Barrymore’s slightly socially handicapped copyeditor turn undercover investigative reporter who goes back to high school to find out what it means to be a teenager tale? Barrymore has an uncanny way of making just about any project she takes on, endearing.  And so viewers simply can’t help but want to see Josie Grossie finally get kissed – and seeing it done by Michael Vartan? Not bad either. Fans will also enjoy “Can’t Buy Me Love.”


 School movies Grease

It’s the word. Before “High School Musical” there was THE high school musical starring John Travolta as leader of the pack, Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton -John as the pristine and precious Sandy Olsson. The songs are catchy and the cast is perfectly balanced with Stockard Channing as Betty Rizzo, Jeff Conaway as Kenickie, Didi Conn and Dinah Manoff. Devout fans will also enjoy “Grease 2.”

Rebel Without A Cause 

School movies Rebel

The high school movie that defined fitting in, falling in love and falling apart: Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film starring James Dean and Natalie Wood. Dean’s expression of frustration in the first scene of this film says it all in terms of teenage angst. The tension is everywhere, between Dean’s Jim Stark and his parents, between Stark and Judy (Wood) and between Stark and all of the students who give him the cold shoulder for being the new kid. This is the one you have to see before you can see them all.

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