On DVD: 13 High School Classics to Take the Sting Out of a New School Year

slater-ryder.jpgThe return to the academic grind doesn't have to be hellish if you use DVDs to make it better. Movies know school like mosquitoes know standing water, and a good film could inspire the hapless teen prole to introduce some individualistic anarchy into The System (or at least wallow in the satisfaction that other students, at other times, have had things much, much worse...)

Heathers (1989)

A massively clever and thick-as-a-brick screenplay by Daniel Waters gave this insurrectionary teen satire plenty of ground to tear up -- it mockingly endorses (among other things) in-school murder, terrorism, and teen suicide, while dishing homosexuality, teachers, parents, football and bulimia. All in good fun, of course, as Winona Ryder's wary clique-follower hangs with the cool big-hair girls of '80s Westerberg High (!), and has her homicidal fantasies realized, a la Strangers on a Train, by new kid Christian Slater (doing a killer Jack Nicholson). Conceptually it's outlandish, right up to the climactic bomb, but it's also endlessly inventive line for slangy line, and the teen feeling of social crisis is there.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Amy Heckerling's overrated and rosily remembered high school farce, based on the book Cameron Crowe wrote after he went undercover in an American high school for Rolling Stone, etches out various familiar social species (geeks, freaks, hotties, jocks, and the semi-forgotten loser in between), and if everyone remembers it for much besides Sean Penn's legendary stoner and Phoebe Cates's tossed bikini, then maybe it's us.

Zero de Conduite (1933)

Son of an anarchist and a consumptive art-film martyr who died at 29, Jean Vigo remains one of cinema's preeminent artists, and this joyful schoolyard revolution is one of the 20th century's great cultural myth-ideas: the dreamy exaltation of adolescent rebellion, personified here by a gaggle of students in a chaotic, pompous and repressive school who impulsively decide to fight back. The shock waves of this rough-hewn, homemade hand grenade are still rippling across adolescent brainpans everywhere. No film has ever spoke to the reckless hearts of boys with the same sympathy, and it might be the first unsung glint of the spirit of rock 'n roll.

Clueless (1995)

Jane Austen's Emma recast as a 1990s Valley Girl ruling the high school roost, negotiating grades with teachers, and creating a social pecking order based on good looks and fashion savvy. Surprisingly witty and the best in the updated-great-lit-for-teens subgenre. Still, Dan Hedaya steals it as the grumpy lawyer dad, warning his daughter's suitor: "Anything happens to my daughter, I got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anybody would miss you."

Rebel without a Cause (1955)

Roundly famous and the movie that made a totem saint out of James Dean, this spectacular Nicholas Ray melodrama functioned in the '50s as the war chant of a new generation and still possesses the hot anger and lost self-pity of every misunderstood teen.

If... (1969)

British critic-turned director Lindsay Anderson made his mark with this boarding-school diatribe, which remade Zero de Conduite down to the rooftop climax, but in the process cut the English disciplinarian education system to ribbons. It was also a generational anthem-film, ill-mannered and furious, and it made Malcolm McDowell enough of a key figure to make him Stanley Kubrick's inevitable casting choice the next year for A Clockwork Orange.

All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)

Shot on beautiful digital video, this neglected movie creates an epic pop-culture ballad out of Japanese adolescent angst, in which teens can only communicate by way of celeb-worshipping chatrooms and, more habitually, by joining the pop-music "ether" they experience alone on their headphones. Deserves to be seen by every lonely high schooler.

Elephant (2003)

Gus Van Sant looks sideways at the Columbine High School massacre, tracing and retracing the paths of several high schoolers as they wander through a largely empty high school, looking for... salvation?, before the shootings unexpectedly begin. Every shot is a question - why? - and every detail potent. One of those my-life-isn't-so-horrible experiences.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

The ultimate geek-hood high school comedy, made in Idaho for chump change and so infectiously hilarious that it's earned a massive cultural ardor from an entire generation of American kids who don't even get the jokes or understand the true horrors of adolescence yet. Jon Heder's title hero is an outrageous creation, but is he a mockery of an already outcast social type?

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

Todd Solondz's horror comedy zeroes in on a homely junior-high-school girl (Heather Matarazzo) trapped in a real and desolate New Jersey no man's land that Solondz hammers to the wall for all time, down to the paneling in the family TV room. Everything-impaired and far from smart, the girl quietly endures the trickle-down barbarity of bullies, the raw purgatory of the seventh grade (a terrifying moment is spent standing at the blackboard staring at math problems), and her own stunted self-image. It's an ordeal by joybuzzer; Solondz's style is high-ranch absurdism. Carrying the whole movie on her folded little shoulders, Matarazzo is astonishingly sharp, vulnerable and authentic, just as much a found object as a portrait of pubescent gracelessness under pressure.

Brick (2005)

A deeply odd, independently made stunt that ends up revealing emotional terrain about being a teenager than no other film has, Rian Johnson's debut movie is a meta-noir revolving around a dead girl, a drug dealer, and a lost brick of dope. The angsty high schoolers all talk in crime-fiction patois, and think in dog-eat-dog cliches: the obligatory "syndicate" is now an exclusive social clique, the young coke kingpin is the mysterious Mr. Big, and the school's dean (Richard Roundtree) is the play-ball detective trying to get the lonely hero (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, making his mark) to aid the law. It sounds gimmicky, but everyone involved means every minute, and the result is a moving portrait of teenage self-seriousness.

Real Genius (1985)

A supremely silly '80s teen comedy about a private high school for scientific geniuses, featuring a fantastically zingy Val Kilmer as the senior class's reigning brain who has already decided that being smart will not prevent him from being a complete clown. As the new kid in town, Gabe Jarret is too convincingly awkward.

Battle Royale (2000)

Many of us remember high school as a war zone, and in this ludicrous, disturbing, fascinating Japanese film from crime-epic master Kinji Fukasaku, the feeling is made literal: in some near future on the verge of youth-gang social collapse, Japan's fascist government randomly selects a class of teens and strands them on an isolated island with one imperative: that they kill each other until one student is left standing. It's a very emotional film (try to find a Japanese or Korean film about high school that isn't), and the kids' catalogue of slights, betrayals, ostracisms, jealousies and clique-creation becomes suddenly a matter of homicidal payback and adolescent prairie justice. You think you had it bad.


  • The Winchester says:

    "Everywhere in L.A. is twenty minutes!"
    I say this so often I'm not sure which side of the hilarious/frightening coin it's on now.

  • Le Retour de la Revanche du Fantôme de la Nouvelle Vague says:

    You've missed one of the best in the bunch and the inspiration for "Heathers": "Lord Love A Duck", starring Roddy McDowell as a 38-year-old teenager who tries to fulfill all of the wishes of a very vapid Tuesday Weld. It's a play on all the conventions of the teen movies and it's brilliant.

  • Jason Dean says:

    Greetings and salutations!
    May God bless Daniel Waters. Check out Sex and Death 101 with Winona Ryder, Simon Baker and Mindy Cohn from The Facts of Life (!)
    After witnessing the rise of Jersey Shore, I do "blame a society that tells its youth that the answers to life's questions can be found in the Mtv video games."