To be clear, this doesn’t say “Top Five High School Movies”, but rather, “Movie High Schools”. In other words, the top five high schools to appear in a movie. This is sort of challenging because generally speaking, high schools in movies (or TV) are disasters: terrible places full of mean-spirited pranks, slander, assault and murder. I can’t really think of a single high school that I’ve seen in a movie that was treated as a nice place.
(Incidentally, this is #5 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
So to that end, I’m going to define “Top” not as “Best”, but rather as “Most Interesting” or “Most Memorable”. Or maybe it’d be more accurate just to say, “Five (or really, Six) High Schools that Played a Significant and Interesting Part in a Movie.” For the most part, I’ve graduated toward lighter-hearted films, although there are some really serious movies that take place in high schools, some of which I’ll reference at the bottom.
So without further ado, let’s start with perhaps the most obvious film to appear any list of memorable high school movies…
Shermer High School – The Breakfast Club (1985) – Directed by John Hughes
Where: Shermer, Illinois
Authority Figure: Assistant Principal Richard Vernon
John Hughes is, of course, the king of the high school movie, basically establishing the genre as something that could contain genuine drama and humor back in the 1980’s. The Breakfast Club is the king of all such films. Even though our view of the place is limited primarily to one location (the library), it manages to paint a detailed picture of the high school experience (or at least one version of it, it was nothing like my years in high school). Assistant Principal Vernon is an odious man who is all the more repulsive since he is played completely straight. Even though Shermer High School does not seem like a nice place, it seems to be a pretty good facility, with its wrestling team, shop classes and a frankly gigantic library.
Greendale High School – Better Off Dead (1985) – Directed by Savage Steve Holland
Where: Greendale, California
Authority Figure: Mr. Kerber, Geometry Teacher
OK, just to be upfront here, I don’t remember Better Off Dead particularly well, though I can recall quite a number of funny bits. But it is another high school movie that actually came out the same year as The Breakfast Club (albeit six months later), and is a lot more suited to my general tastes with its quirky humor. The high school (It’s full of irreverent humor, and a range of quirky characters including the vain captain of the local ski team (not the sort of thing one normally sees), a Japanese kid who learned to speak English from watching football with Howard Cosell, and a geometry teacher played by the king of quirky, Vincent Schiavelli. The place is also called Greendale High School–could that be from where Community came up with the name?
Hill Valley High School – Back to the Future (1985) – Directed by Robert Zemekis
Where: Hill Valley, California
Authority Figure: S.S. Strickland, Vice-Principal
The third film on this list to come out in 1985, and the second to take place in Northern California! Back to the Future was the most popular film of the year, based on box-office receipts, and of course is remembered as tremendously popular science fiction comedy. But it’s also a high school movie, and a lot of the action takes place at Hill Valley High School over multiple time periods. There’s all the teen love, bullying and angst that one wants from a high school movie. Hill Valley High School seems a nice enough place overall. They are particularly committed to their school dances, with Chuck Berry’s cousin performing at one and a guy who looks like Huey Lewis figuring out the music program at the other.
Ferris Bueller’s High School – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – Directed by John Hughes
Where: Near Chicago, Illinois
Authority Figure: Dean of Students Edward R. Rooney
Back to John Hughes for our fourth entry. This time, as far as I know, the high school isn’t named, but we do know that the ostensible “ruler” of the place is Dean of Students Rooney. He is a comical version of The Breakfast Club’s Richard Vernon, someone who sees his position in a high school as a way of bringing order to society. He can’t admit that the true influence amongst the students, which overrides his power, is Ferris Bueller himself. Ferris is treated as some sort of humanized benevolent trickster social demi-god, and the ultimate hero for most of the students. Only his sister sees through his games, but even she is united with him against Rooney.
Of course, the other thing we know about Ferris Bueller’s school is that there is a history teacher there who looks and sounds like Ben Stein who is putting his students to sleep, and is kind of awesome.
Rydell High School – Grease (1978) – Directed by Randal Kleiser
Where: Presumably in California
Authority Figure: Principle Greta McGee
Our last entry is also our earliest. Grease was one of the most popular films of the 1970’s, and is of course full of all sorts of memorable tunes and dances. It’s the love story, more or less, between Danny & Sandy, two people from the opposite sides of the tracks who meet during the summer away from the social pressure of teenaged cliques, and then have to figure out how to work it all out when they are back in the “real world” of high school.
Of course, this is a funny thing to say because basically everybody who has ever graduated from high school knows that in no way is high school anything like the “real world”. But I guess that’s the point of movies like this, they recognize that when you are there, as far as you know, it is real. And if that’s so, then there’s room to make some interesting films about the experience.
So, that was going to be it, but in finishing this post I just felt I had to mention one more institute for secondary education:
Chantry Boys Boarding School – Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971) – Directed by John Mackenzie
Where: England, someplace
Authority Figure: A headmaster, unnamed (as far as I know)
Unman, Wittering and Zigo is a little-remembered thriller that I caught on TV on night, about a man who has managed to get a job as a teacher when his predecessor died in strange accident. It’s only when he starts teaching his class of teen boys that he learns that the teacher was apparently murdered…by his class. They threaten to do the same to him if he doesn’t keep their crime a secret and do a few other special favors for them. The boys are united in their tormenting of the teacher, coming across like some sort of strange cult, but minus any supernatural elements. I really don’t remember this film super well but I remember being gripped all the way through, though somewhat confused and disappointed by the ending. But I wanted to mention it just as an example of a very different and far creepier type of high school.
Considered & Rejected: Most obviously, Ridgemont High from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I saw that movie (most of it anyway) a long time ago but with the amount of nudity and sexual references in it, I’ve no desire to consider it for anything. The same for Scream, although for different sorts of content. I also thought about Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, The Principal, Remember the Titans and Clueless, amongst others, but either I don’t remember them very well or don’t consider them as interesting as the ones listed. Dangerous Minds comes close, just because it’s so different from everything else here. Maybe if I’d actually seen To Sir, With Love all the way through. Or if I could remember Stand and Deliver better.
Full Disclosure: I have never seen any of the High School Musical movies. Or Lean on Me.