The Best High School Films for the Modern Millennial
Labor Day weekend is the marker when millions of teenagers shift their focus away from summer and onto the new school year.
High school is a pivotal time in young people’s lives. From a psychological standpoint, the high school years represent a period when a significant percentage of teens will first experience mental health problems. Rates of depression, anxiety, substance use problem, eating disorders, and suicide all significantly spike during the high school years.
But high school is also an exciting period of personal discovery, growth, maturation, and meaningful relationships. I grew up on films that highlighted the pain, insecurity, meaningfulness, and fun that come during high school. Films like Say Anything, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Clueless are special not just as exceptional films but also because of the relationships they remind me of in my own life.
But those films are so …. Old! I mean, I love many of Hughes’ films, and the 1980’s and 1990’s have a ridiculous surplus of quality films that take place during the high school years, but not everything about these films is timeless. It’s 2017 and all of the John Hughes films mentioned have celebrated their 30th anniversaries. 30 years!
As a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I can’t imagine having adult pop-culture aficionados direct me to high school films made in the 1950’s and 1960’s. That’s what it is like for today’s high school teens when they’re told that The Breakfast Club, Razor’s Edge, or Say Anything are the best films about high school. I can’t imagine being in high school in the early 1990’s and someone telling me to watch 1959’s Gidget starring Sandra Dee to understand the teen years.
So for those who believe great, high school films ended with 1995’s Clueless, here are the best high school films of this century.
The Top Contenders
#17 – Friday Night Lights (2004)
Given that the television spin-off is regarded as one of the greatest show ever, it’s hard to remember that Peter Berg originally adapted the H.G. Kissinger (Berg’s cousin) best-selling nonfiction book into a very good film. Following the true story of the Permian Panthers’ 1988 season and their run to the state championship, this is Peter Berg filmmaking at his most restrained and least sentimentalized. Bill Bob Thorton excels as Coach Gaines, while Derek Luke, Lucas Black, and Garret Hedlund all give surprisingly strong performances. After catching the film adaptation, go and watch (or re-watch) the television series that ran for 6 season (2006-2011). I have yet to hear a single person badmouth the show.
#16 – Chronicle (2012)
A found footage film about teens gaining superpowers. This should have gone wrong in so many ways. And yet, Josh Trank’s direction of Max Landis’ script earn Chronicle a well-deserved place on this list. Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan showed early on that they have the acting chops to have long and respected acting careers. It’s hard to imagine ten years ago Michael B Jordan portraying the popular class president and not making his race a major plot point. Here, the film treats it like an afterthought. Boy have times changed. Imagine what John Hughes would have done with that character.
#15 – Thirteen (2003)
I don’t care that she is responsible for the first Twilight film. Catherine Hardwicke will always be held in high regard for co-writing (along with Nikki Reed) and directing this provocative and revealing film about how adolescents (and therefore adolescent rebellion) is starting at an earlier age, regardless of whether parents are ready or not. Despite not being a box-office hit when it first came out, those parents who did view it were peeing in their parents and praying that the film was more sensationalized than accurate.
In hindsight, it was probably a bit of both. Although not for teens, thirteen-year-olds experimenting with body piercing, self-harm, alcohol, drugs, and sex make for a film that stirs a lot of emotions and generates a lot of debate and conversation.
#14 – Persepolis (2007)
The only animated film included on this list, Persepolis is a biographical film based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. The story follows a young girl as she comes of age against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. Unlike the rest of the films on this list, Persepolis will not age due to the brilliant choice to present the story in its original graphic novel format. The themes of political tyranny, sexual identity, female oppression, and mental health feel even more urgent today than when the film debuted ten years ago.
#13 – Easy A (2010)
This 21st century take on “The Scarlet Letter” should not have worked. But Emma Stone’s amazing acting performance elevated Easy A to a playful and insightful take on slut-shaming in the age of social media. The film does a better job satirizing most moralistic takes on teen comedies, and bonus points for Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson creating one of the funniest and refreshing parenting teams in the history of high school comedies.
#12 – 21 Jump Street (2012)
It’s ironic that a remake of a corny television show from the late 80’s/ early 90’s would be able to speak about the drastic sea change that has taken place in high school. The 80’s John Hughes stereotypes are now historical relics. Gone are the Emilio Estevez jocks or Anthony Michael Hall geeks. Progress and geek culture has blurred the lines of what differentiates the in-crowd from the outcast. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s undercover role reversal hilariously and pointedly demonstrate this change. I love how 21 Jump Street also points out the absurdity of most high school films having their characters look like 20 or 30 year-olds.
#11 – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
This film could have gone wrong in several ways. The fact that the film is able to balance and ultimately switch tones is a testament to the material, the direction, and especially the three lead characters. The budding friendship between Greg (Thomas Mann) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is tender and poignant, and the fact that the film avoids the temptation to turn their friendship into a romantic relationship is just one of many right decisions. Here is a more detailed review of the film that is available on Shrink Tank.
#10 – Dope (2015)
There was a degree of ambivalence in me when I first watched Dope. I felt torn about another film depicting young people of color involved with gangs and drug dealing. Despite my reservations, the charm of the film and a star-in-the-making performance by its lead Shameik Moore won me over. Dope is dark and rough around the edges, but there is a heart at the center of the film and its central characters.
#9 – Donnie Darko (2001)
I struggled with whether or not to put this film on this list for several reasons. Does its sci-fi credentials or 1980’s period disqualify it? In the end, the film is too strong to leave off the list. It captures the absurdity and tension that sometimes exists between students and their school’s administration. It also satires the suburban, 80’s scene that many of the teen films of the 80’s take place in, while adding a degree of teenage disenchantment and disturbance that would never have been afforded in most of the teen comedies of the 80’s and 90’s.
#8- Juno (2007)
My biggest criticism of John Hughes films (other than their concerning racial undertones) is his utter lack of concern for parents and adults. Almost every one of his adult characters is a buffoon, one dimensional, or inconsequential to the lives of the teen protagonists. That is what I love most about Juno.
Sure, it’s sometimes too quirky for its own good.
And topically, it tackles a topic that has become more of a declining or marginal concern. But the adult characters and their interactions with Juno (Ellen Page) and her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirby) is refreshing. The adults talk with the teens – not just at them or to them. They express frustration and disappointment, but offer love and support.
#8 – Moonlight (2016)
Barry Jenkin’s film adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” confronts the uncomfortable fact of homophobia rooted in black American culture. The film is a platform to showcase the universal commonality of the human experience and the longing for unconditional acceptance. The film’s low ranking is only due to one-third of the film focusing on the high school years. As a singular piece of pure cinema, it outranks most of the films on this list. I have written extensively about my admiration for the film and its source material. I also included Moonlight on my list of the best films so far this century.
#7 – Superbad (2007)
I tend to view Superbad as the 21st century Weird Science, a friendship film disguised as a “sex comedy”. The level of crude humor originally seemed extreme to adults, but time has demonstrated that for many, Superbad was a more realistic depiction of high school than the John Hughes films. Unlike American Pie, whose characters were one dimensional and uninteresting, Jonah Hill’s Seth and Michael Cera’s Evan give the film a nuanced friendship that comes across as authentic, complicated, and full of heart. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s McLovin is one of the 21st century’s best characters.
#6 – The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
One of the most underappreciated films of recent memory, The Edge of Seventeen should have been a celebration of the talented Kelly Fremon Craig, who wrote and directed the film. Unfortunately, the film got lost in the overcrowded slate of quality films released during award season. Hailee Steinfeld was rightfully praised and recognized for her nuanced portrayal of Nadine Franklin, but Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Haley Lu Richardson, and Hayden Szeto all create believable characters that add to the film’s authenticity and sincerity.
#5 – The Spectacular Now (2013)
James Ponsoldt’s magnificent film is one of those rare high school films where the characters both look and act like actual teens. There really aren’t any villains. Just normal teens figuring themselves out through the lens of relationships, sex, break-ups, and mistakes. Miles Teller’s Sutter Keely and Shailene Woodley’s Aimee Finicky feel like kids you know or knew in high school. Their commitment to creating complex, three-dimensional characters makes it easy to see how the two of them could end up together, even if they may not ultimately stay together. The most organic and realistic of all the high school films on this list.
For those who love Say Anything, I always tell them that they have to watch that film’s 21st-century counterpart.
#4 – Boyhood (2014)
This is the best film on the list in terms of quality and accomplishment, but it is only minimally about high school years.
The slow build-up to Mason’s high school experience highlights how people’s relationships shift and change as they grow up and grow older. Mason’s character mirrors most high school graduates, in that they ultimately have very little idea what direction they are heading and what they want out of life. For more detailed analysis of Boyhood, check out my previous posts on the film: PART ONE, PART TWO and PART THREE.
#3 – Elephant (2003)
Gus Van Sant’s minimalistic and unsettling take on the Columbine High School massacre remains one of the most jarring film-watching experiences. The film is quiet, detached, and bland, in ways that probably ring true for most people’s high school experience. The tone and documentary style filmmaking makes the impending threat and eventual tragedy that much more harrowing and shocking. A film you won’t want to miss, but probably won’t want to watch twice.
#2 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (who based it on his own novel), this beloved young adult novel stars Logan Lerman as Charlie, a vulnerable freshman introduced to parties, sex, friendship, and music by Sam and Patrick, step-siblings played by Emma Watson and Ezra Miller. Chbosky does an admirable job of tackling heavy topics of suicide, sexual abuse of a child, teen suicide, sexuality, and sexual orientation without it turning into a made-for-television fiasco. Another teen film where all of the main players have gone on to establish themselves as bonafide adult actors/actresses.
#1 – Mean Girls (2004)
This film has everything a movie needs to become revered and timeless. It’s a great film with a great screenplay. The list of actors and actresses who have gone on to establish reputable careers is ridiculous (Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, Amy Poehler, and Amanda Seyfried). In retrospect, Mean Girls was ahead of its time by highlighting female aggression, bullying, slut-shaming, and toxic friendships. This film demonstrates that great acting and storytelling can ward off Hollywood’s aversion to female-centric stories. Mean Girls is the best high school film made this century.