The 20 greatest high school movies of all time

1:00 pm EDT, September 14, 2017

With summer coming to an end and school back in session, we take a look at the 20 greatest movies about high school ever made.

20. ‘Superbad’

It’s tempting to overlook Superbad, a movie that can easily be reduced to a story about two boys attempting to lose their virginity. However, within this story, the movie depicts a really nuanced take on male friendship. Superbad subverts a prototypical tale of male sexual conquest and turns it into a compelling interrogation of the way social expectations govern male companionship.

19. ‘Say Anything’

The image of John Cusack holding a boombox over his head has lived on in the cultural conscious since Say Anything debuted in 1989. Directed by Cameron Crowe, Say Anything is a near pitch-perfect tale of star-crossed teen love.

18. ‘Rebel Without a Cause’

Featuring James Dean in one of his only movie performances, Rebel Without a Cause is one of the most iconic movies about the high school experience. The movie is high-wire act of technicolor melodrama full of romance and violence that raises the stakes of high school love to a matter of life and death.

17. ‘Scream’

While Scream is certainly considered more a horror movie as opposed to one about high school, it’s impossible to deny how Wes Craven’s slasher flick grounds its story through the rituals and spaces inhabited by students. The use of school classrooms and bathrooms, house parties, and romantic entanglements are all trademarks of a good high school movie. Scream places a masked killer into these spaces, turning out a thrilling allegory for the fears and anxieties of the high school experience.

16. ‘Easy A’

Starring the endlessly charming Emma Stone, Easy A captures both the comedy and drama of the high school experience through lens of virginity. As sort of a companion piece to Superbad, which Stone also appears in, Easy A deals with the implications of a teenage girl’s sexuality and how losing her virginity can affect her reputation. Buoyed by Stone’s performance, Easy A is able to delve into some really complex themes while remaining a stellar comedy.

15. ‘Rushmore’

Wes Anderson’s movie about a precocious and ambitious teenager that falls in love with a new teacher at his prep school is a charming tale of youth and the delightful delusions and idiosyncrasies that accompany it. Starring Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, Rushmore epitomizes Anderson’s style while still capturing a distinct essence of the high school experience.

14. ‘American Graffiti’

Before George Lucas directed Star Wars, he brought American Graffiti to the big screen. Playing out over a single night on the last day of summer vacation, American Graffiti follows a group of kids as they drive around their small town, talking about their lives and worrying about the future. It’s a remarkable portrait of the intimacies and anxieties that accompany the high school experience.

13. ‘Bring It On’

Bring It On takes the classic story of feuding teens and infuses it with cheerleading and the result is magnificent. Kirsten Dunst, Gabrielle Union, and Eliza Dushku all shine in this wildly entertaining portrait of high school cheerleading and the intense drama that comes with it. Bring It On doesn’t shy away from the intensity of the characters and it never once tries to cheapen their passion.

12. ‘The Virgin Suicides’

Sofia Coppola’s debut feature film The Virgin Suicides is an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides novel by the same name. The movie follows five mysterious sisters who become the object of fascination among a group of local boys. The Virgin Suicides dives headlong into complex depictions of love, sex, repression, and death and how those elements shape our adolescence.

11. ‘Heathers’

Heathers turns high school into hell in this movie about the cruelty of teen cliques. Starring Winona Ryder, Heathers is a bleak and stylized portrait of the life of teenage girls that includes an accidental poisoning, faked suicides, and a trip to hell. It’s a movie with a sharp bite that commits itself fully to its vision and is stronger for it.

10. ’10 Things I Hate About You’

Shakespeare adaptations are a dime a dozen, but 10 Things I Hate About You stands out as one of the most memorable. Adapted from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the movie is a complicated story of two sisters and their several suitors that will do anything to get past the girls’ father’s tough rules on dating. The scene at the end of the film where our protagonist, Kat, reads a poem titled “10 Things I Hate About You” is still remembered almost 20 years later.

9. ‘Carrie’

While It may be the new name in Stephen King adaptations, this 1976 film took on King’s first published novel about an outsider that develops strange supernatural powers. Carrie is harassed and abused by her classmates and her mother and, in the end, she uses her powers to protect herself. The story is an exercise in extreme hyperbole, but derives something memorable out of turning high school into a horror story.

8. ‘Election’

Alexander Payne’s Election tells the story of a feud between a highly determined high school student, played by the brilliant Reese Witherspoon, and her government teacher (Matthew Broderick). The movie takes student government elections, a passing nuisance for most students, and turns it into a high stakes battle for power and control.

7. ‘Hoop Dreams’

Steve James’ 1994 documentary follows two black teenagers over the course of five years as they chase their dreams of one day making it into the NBA. At a length of almost three hours, Hoop Dreams is all at once a sprawling yet intimate portrayal of the hopes and dreams that feel so out of reach in high school.

6. ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’

If there is any doubt that Fast Times at Ridgemont High deserves a place on this list, just look to the Library of Congress. In 2005, they selected the movie for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Full of deeply funny and truly genuine characters, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is follows a group of friends over the course of a single school year, following their ups and downs in a way that is both incredibly funny and poignant. The film possesses a clear understanding of what it means to be a teen in a way few movies are able to achieve.

5. ‘Mean Girls’

Mean Girls might be one of the most quoted movies of all time and for good reason; it’s a sharply written movie that satirizes the high school experience while still finding a way to feel genuine. Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams square off as the best of frenemies in a film that has lived on one of the most loved movies about high school ever made.

4. ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’

John Hughes has come to be known for his contributions to ’80s coming-of-age films. While The Breakfast Club is often heralded as Hughes’ chief accomplishment, it’s really Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that stands out from the rest. The movie perfectly bottles the desire for freedom that high schoolers crave so badly and allows that feeling to play out on a grandiose scale. Unlike The Breakfast Club that leans on easy and superficial tropes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off captures an everlasting truth of the high school experience and runs with it.

3. ‘The Last Picture Show’

Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show is a remarkable depiction of the profound sadness and desperation that roots itself in the high school experience. The characters in The Last Picture Show are all looking for something, but willing to offer one another very little in return; as their lives change, so does their town. The future looms heavily over the characters in the film in a way that is painfully real. The Last Picture Show understands, perhaps more than any other movie about high school, how ephemeral this time in life is.

2. ‘Dazed and Confused’

Dazed and Confused starts in the last minutes of the last day of school just as summer is about to begin. The movie watches the teens in this town, from the new freshman to the graduated seniors, over the course of a single night. Writer and director Richard Linklater imbues the entire movie with a sense of ritual, custom, and choreography – as if everything that happens is meant to happen and that it exists as a part of a larger order or culture. That’s the power of Dazed and Confused; even if what it depicts was not your experience, it still succeeds in making you feel as though it was. It bleeds truth and sincerity in a way so few films about high school do.

1. ‘Clueless’

Of all the films on this list, no other is able to walk the line between deeply satirical and remarkably earnest as well as Clueless. Based on Jane Austen’s novel Emma, Clueless follows wealthy, superficial, yet sympathetic Cher Horowitz as she navigates her way through high school as the popular girl. Like so many teenagers, Cher is idealistic yet oblivious, but the movie doesn’t judge her for this. Instead, the movie allows her to realize this, and other things, on her own time. Clueless is a story of positive personal growth and change and that’s why it’s number one on this list. High school can and should be a time for discovery, about oneself and the world. Clueless is, in fact, not clueless to that at all.

Do you have a favorite high school movie?

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