Second Union

Second Union

The Best Back-to-School Movies

Before we kick things off, here are a few honorable mentions that should also definitely be given a watch if you have the chance.

  • A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
  • Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
  • Carrie (1976)
  • Dead Poets Society (1989)
  • Dope (2015)
  • Grease (1978)
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
  • Pitch Perfect (2012)
  • Pretty in Pink (1986)
  • The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

In addition, here are some school-centered television shows that warrant a binge if you have the time.

  • American Vandal (Netflix, 1 season) [Season 2 premieres on September 14th, 2018]
  • Big Mouth (Netflix, 1 season) [Season 2 premieres on October 5th, 2018]
  • Community (NBC and Yahoo! View, 6 seasons)
  • Grown-ish (Freeform, 1 season) [Season 2 premieres in 2019]
  • Riverdale (The CW, 2 seasons) [Season 3 premieres on October 10th, 2018]
  • Stranger Things (Netflix, 2 seasons) [Season 3 premieres in 2019]

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

10 Things I Hate About You isn’t out to be hailed as an extraordinary piece of cinema. The plot is nothing special. In fact, it’s pretty ordinary. However, it works because of just how flat-out normal it is, focusing on characters that have common and standard problems. Stiles’ and Ledger’s performances are truly enjoyable, and as you get to know their characters better, you find yourself rooting for them more and more. Most of the film can get unbelievable, but the smaller stuff makes a difference.

There are also a few standout moments, which separates this movie from others like it. Many aspire to appeal to a certain demographic, and they rarely succeed because they don’t care about telling a relatable story. This one does because it’s smart, respectful, and also plays it safe in spots. The film is an entertaining representation of teen culture, and the distinct ‘90s style is more refreshing than ever, especially when compared to the stupidity seen in the majority of said teen flicks released in this day and age. It’s not a memorable movie in any sense of the word, but better than many.

’21 Jump Street’ Franchise (2012-2014)

21 Jump Street is incredibly funny in more than one way but doesn’t drift into an area where it becomes dumbed-down. The meta-references (and cameos) are smartly executed enough to work, and the captivating main performances and “bromance” from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum never get old. Each line of dialogue is well-written, and there are also plenty of unexpected twists that are true greatness on all levels. The overall concept of the first film might not have worked if not for the stellar chemistry between the leads, but it succeeds brilliantly.

22 Jump Street isn’t afraid to recycle the plot of its predecessor. It actually gets some great gags out of it. Sure, the new college setting is a different approach, but the overall message is the same. Does that make it bad, though? Not necessarily. In fact, quite the opposite. The comedy is elevated to new levels and both the returning and new characters never feel boring or out-of-place. While the story is, like said, rehashed, a lot of the comedy feels genuinely new and refreshing, never failing to reacher the already high bar set by the first. Definitely, give these two films a watch if you want plenty of belly laughs.

Back to School (1986)

Is Back to School an amazing film? No, but it sure as hell provides a plethora of genuinely funny moments and an oddly compelling lead in Rodney Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon. It’s a delightfully weird viewing, one with plenty of raunchy (but never cheap) dialogue. There’s actually a pretty adequate story in there, too, one that’s been copied time and time again but never fails to delight. Aside from Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, and Robert Downey, Jr. also provide decent performances.

There really isn’t much that separates Back to School from other movies like it, aside from some of the unique and memorable jokes, but that doesn’t make it bad. Rarely does it feel like it’s overstaying its welcome, and even with some instances of clichéd elements, it’s still highly enjoyable and entertaining. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, and that’s exactly what makes it fun to watch. It’s not an essential film by any means, but if you set your expectations low, you’ll have a blast.

Back to the Future (1985)

Great Scott! Packed to the brim with exciting action and memorable set-pieces, Back to the Future still remains a staple in pop culture history. Smartly playing it safe while conveying a complicated idea like time travel, it also is highly satisfying in terms of character choices and writing, never once feeling boring or stupid, even despite there not being a more complex plot. The film gets off to a slightly uneven start, and initially relies on wit to hold the viewer’s attention, but after a little while, it can be seen as pretty much perfect.

Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly is a truly exciting hero, and never feels sidelined. The story is a really unique take on the concept of time travel, and every scene works simply because of the script and how it forces the viewer to question what they would do in Marty’s situation. The contrasts between the ‘50s and ‘80s Hill Valley are hilarious, in addition to the town’s reactions to Marty’s “futuristic” antics. This movie has a strong sense of individuality, and it shows. It’s never afraid to take risks and it has a highly engaging sense of humor and fun. It’s iconic for a reason, and that reason is that it’s awesome.

Better Off Dead (1985)

Following a grief-stricken teen dealing with a harsh breakup, Better Off Dead takes that material and utilizes it to its advantage, creating a darkly hilarious depiction of a teen’s dampened life. John Cusack is great, and so is the film’s message — exploring the key to finding true happiness out of bad things. This is without a doubt a comedy, and it shows with its quirky sense of humor and a distinct theme throughout that never gets old. The characters are utilized brilliantly and the writing is simply entertaining. Nothing more, nothing less.

While it masquerades as a black comedy, the movie really is sweet and earnest in that it shows that while nothing lasts forever, you can still move on. It’s pretty straightforward and there are some really standout moments, such as the persistent paperboy who only wants his two dollars. Then, there’s the insanely enjoyable claymation scene set to Van Halen. Could you really ask for much more? No, not really. It’s likely you haven’t seen this movie, but it features some great moments and dialogue, so definitely give it a watch. It’s worth your time, and the payoff is satisfying in more ways than one.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Yeah, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure doesn’t really take place at school, but the iconic buddy comedy is still a worthwhile watch for anybody who hasn’t seen it before. Not only is the “excellent adventure” actually excellent, the chemistry and charisma between Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter is genuine and serves as a tremendously fun backdrop to an already enjoyable movie. The different time periods they travel to and the capers that ensue are well-executed and serve a purpose, not once feeling dumbed-down.

All of the historical figures that show up contribute to the movie’s hilarious comedic value. You’ll never be able to unsee Napoleon Bonaparte having the time of his life at the Waterloo, the coincidentally-named waterpark in Bill and Ted’s town. In addition, the mall scene where each of the figures explores and find something that suits them (e.g. Beethoven and a piano) is incredibly inventive. It may be a comedy movie, but it’s not afraid to take risks (very small ones, mind you). The entire movie leads to a highly satisfying ending that will leave you wanting more. It’s a truly fun and enjoyable movie that has become really overlooked in recent years.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

John Hughes’ 1985 classic The Breakfast Club is phenomenal for so many reasons. It starts off innocent enough, cleverly introducing the characters and how they fit into the general high school life. You have your brain, athlete, basket case, princess, and criminal, and you go into the movie expecting certain tropes to play out based on those stereotypes. It does at first, but then it delves into more personal matters, and how everybody isn’t what they’re made out to be. Each actor delivers memorable performances and the characters’ one-liners never get old.

Despite all of the seriousness, though, there are some hilarious moments and quotes scattered throughout, such as the lunch, dancing, and chase scenes. Even if it wasn’t already an influential piece of pop culture history, the film would still hold up quite well, showing off how peers can be perceived vs. how they actually are. It’s a strong message that many movies have copied, but have never been able to truly replicate. With expertly crafted tonal consistency, as well as unforgettable characters, John Hughes’ perfect film only strengthens with age. Simply put, The Breakfast Club still remains a masterpiece, even by today’s standards.

Clueless (1995)

Clueless remains iconic for many reasons. It’s extremely self-aware in that it never feels like it could genuinely become what it’s parodying, yet ironically plastered with high school clichés, potentially annoying characters, and classic ‘90s stereotypes. Thanks to this, the movie works especially well as both a comedy and a drama, carried by the great performances, more specifically the ever-terrific Alicia Silverstone, who is just phenomenally charismatic and entertaining as the lead character.

It’s rare that someone like Silverstone’s Cher can generate such engagement from the viewer, but it works thanks to the layers and motivations behind her actions and dialogue, in addition to Silverstone’s chemistry with her co-stars. The general impression it gives off is natural-feeling, rarely seeming forced or trite. Its messages are simple, and while lacking a tad bit of originality, still deliver what they intend to. The movie isn’t hard to comprehend. It’s a simple high-school flick and a really enjoyable one at that. Filled with wit, charm, and utter brilliance, this movie remains one of the must-sees for anyone.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater’s iconic foray into the lives of high schoolers, follows different groups of them (some soon-to-be freshman, some soon-to-be seniors) on the last day of school as they question their future, party, and get stoned. It’s a more fun version of American Graffiti, tracking the journey of each of the groups until they eventually end up in the same place. It also features a plethora of future stars such as Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Milla Jovovich.

The film doesn’t have that incredible of a visual flair, but it’s stylish in its own right and perfectly captures the heart of the ’70s with its neon-soaked aesthetic. The dialogue is really smart at points, and the humor always delivers, especially when it comes from Rory Cochrane’s hilarious stoner character Ron Slater. With plenty of worthwhile life lessons, really enjoyable character interactions, and standout moments, this is one film you definitely want to see at least once.

‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ Franchise (2010-2012)

The first Diary of a Wimpy Kid film is definitely directed towards a pretty specific target audience, but there’s still plenty of enjoyment all around, for kids and adults alike. Certain elements definitely feel trite, sometimes catering too much to the childish demographic, but even with that in mind, it never really fails to serve as what it is trying to be. There’s some pretty memorable moments and characters, which makes it more than your average children’s book adaptation. Nothing more, nothing less.

The second and third entries (Rodrick Rules and Dog Days) tackle different issues than the first, focusing on the trouble of sibling rivalry and the stress of having a pretty big crush, respectively. They definitely get more silly as they progress, but yet again still end up delivering some highly entertaining elements. The acting is pretty consistent and the different settings act as a fine transition for the characters. They certainly aren’t for everyone, but if you can appreciate the level of childish humor present, you’ll probably end up having a decent time.

Donnie Darko (2001)

Richard Kelly hasn’t made a decent movie since, but his directorial debut, 2001’s cult classic Donnie Darko, still remains one of the most jarring films ever made. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a terrific performance as the titular character. Delivering a darkly vibrant expression of schizophrenia and paranoia, Gyllenhaal’s Donnie is manipulated into committing crimes by a man in the world’s creepiest bunny outfit.

Donnie initially comes off as your general teenager, but more troubled and disturbed than others. As you delve into his life, however, you find yourself intrigued by the puzzling persona. In addition, the movie is packed to the brim with masterful cinematography, adding a welcome amount of depth to an already engaging experience. Throw in some time travel and a jaw-dropping ending, and you have yourself a pretty fulfilling movie. Ultimately, you’ll either be wholly satisfied or immensely confused with the movie. Either way, though, it is a work of art and the extended edition is absolutely, positively worth your time.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

At its heart, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a comedy and a very good one at that. It features an unforgettable performance from Sean Penn, who delivers each of his lines with perfection. In addition, the almost anthology-like structure of the film makes it really easy to follow and keep up with, allowing you to get lost in the characters and their lives without feeling too committed to them.

However, while it features loads of comedic elements, it also gives a fresh perspective on the lives of teenagers and what goes on at home. One of the finest elements of the film is that it provides a realistic outlook on pretty mature topics such as teen pregnancy and abortion, as well as the constant switching of jobs. Filled with iconic moments and characters, the movie is truly a must-watch for anyone wanting an insanely funny but also contained film that lands on all levels.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off isn’t the most statement-making of movies. It isn’t trying to be anything more than what it is, which is a really fun time. It’s no surprise how iconic each character has become over time, and while its main protagonist can be pretty infuriating in terms of how he treats his friend Cameron, there’s so much to like and enjoy. It’s not really that phenomenal, but it’s a phenomenally entertaining flick, one that provides a plethora of enjoyment.

There’s no sense of overconfidence, but also no sense that the film is holding back. It contains a pretty good life lesson, one that can be seen referenced everywhere nowadays, and some really standout scenes, each memorable in their own way. Whether of the humorous sort or with a deeper meaning, there are plenty of great moments peppered throughout and it just works on all fronts. It’s easily one of the most consistently entertaining films of all time, without question.

‘Harry Potter’ Franchise (2001-2011)

Is there even a need for an explanation as to why these films are on here? No, but here’s one anyway. The Harry Potter franchise drifts further away from Hogwarts in its later entries, but it still remains a staple in the book and film communities. Both are ridiculously influential, the movies working incredibly well at transferring much of the books from page to screen. When your films can generate such a strongly developed reaction from the audience, you know you’re doing everything right.

Every film contributes something new to the world, enveloping you in the richness of it all, whether it be characters, lore, or locations. The plots never feel thin or drawn-out, despite the hefty run-time of some entries. The constant theme of friendship stays prevalent thanks to the admirable chemistry between the kids. The pacing is consistently engaging, never once feeling forced. The franchise as a whole is extremely well-written and shows off some overwhelming school spirit to an otherwise dark and mysterious environment. While some are better than others, each manages to be utterly brilliant anyway.

Juno (2007)

Ellen Page’s phenomenal performance alone gives Juno a boost, but the heartwarming coming-of-age tale about a teenage pregnancy is definitely not what you’re thinking. It has some genuinely humorous moments, and many of the characters’ interactions are funnily written. However, it is at its heart a drama and a bittersweet one at that. In addition to Page, Michael Cera gives a delightful portrayal as Juno’s love interest Paulie Bleeker, who also delivers the gut-punch of an emotional twist.

Juno herself initially comes off as a bit of an immature wreck (hamburger phone, anyone?), but she becomes more and more self-aware as the story progresses, which makes her personality increasingly relatable. Smartly portraying the troubles of this subject matter is already tough, but director Jason Reitman knows what he’s doing and manages to catapult this seemingly innocent rom-com into something so unforgettable in the best of ways. Its uses of music work in its favor and the way it treats people who have gone through the same plight is extraordinary. Don’t be swayed by the emotionally devastating themes, and you have yourself one hell of a great film.

Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird may be one of the most recent films on this list, but it’s easily one of the best. When it starts, it already differentiates itself from other school-set movies by taking place at a Catholic school, but it also has much more heart than many recent additions to the sub-genre care to take part in. Saoirse Ronan’s excellent performance as the titular character is the heart of the simplistic, easy-to-follow story, but it’s Laurie Metcalf’s portrayal as her mother that contributes to the emotional core of it.

We follow Lady Bird as she prepares for the end of high school, and we see her go through many life changes that culminate in her increased maturity, but even after, she still makes naive mistakes that any 18-year-old would. Watching her traverse friendships, romantic interests, and dreams of her future make for a highly engaging viewing experience that builds up to a climax that leaves you wrecked. It’s no surprise that the movie was nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards and first-time helmer Greta Gerwig for Best Director. Let’s hope that her next feature is just as amazing as this one.

Mean Girls (2004)

Mean Girls can be described as an over-the-top and unbelievable rendition of high school life, but that’s its finest quality. Dramatic in the best way possible, it gives audiences a pretty engaging story, lifted by the performances of the titular characters. Rachel McAdams’ Regina George is easily one of the most iconic characters introduced this century, and while the message does feel a bit predictable, the rest is chock-full of great comedic moments and some of the most quotable movie lines in recent memory.

The weakest link is Lindsay Lohan’s protagonist Cady Heron, who comes off as your typical good-girl-gone bad throughout the film’s runtime. It really isn’t that big of an issue in the long-run, however. Each of the characters is pretty entertaining in multiple ways. Amanda Seyfried’s Karen and Lacey Chabert’s Gretchen provide some great comic relief, but it’s Daniel Franzese’s Damien and Lizzy Caplan’s Janice that truly steals every scene they’re in. It’s a must-watch during the back-to-school season, and one of the finest comedy films of the past couple of decades, making it a modern comedy classic.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Easily one of the quirkiest films ever made, Napoleon Dynamite immediately comes off as a comedy, but not your typical one. It’s become a cult classic for its truly funny way of thinking and delivering its story and character dynamics. It has a heartwarming message about family, but it’s buried underneath really well-delivered humor and weirdness. Insanely quotable and decently directed, the film also showcases some of the most memorable characters of this century.

There’s really not much else that can be said about the movie that hasn’t already been said. It’s not one that you can look deep into, but that’s fine. Made all the more enjoyable by the charm and chemistry between the actors, and the fact that it never forays into cliché territory or feels down, this isn’t the most necessary movie to watch in your free time, but its’ definitely deserving of at least one viewing before its 15th anniversary next year.

School of Rock (2003)

Jack Black’s incredible performance immediately lifts School of Rock to a “more than your average musical” tier of quality, but it’s the kids he mentors that really complete it. The performances are simply great on all levels, and the movie itself does nothing but make you feel good, which makes it even more complete by ensuring that it’s succeeding at doing what it intends to do. Every actor seems to just be having a blast, and the message it serves to kids and adults is more than enough to make it memorable.

Joan Cusack is hilarious as the school’s principal, and her chemistry with Black is tremendous. And when taking into consideration the fact that all of the kids are actually playing the instruments, it’s pretty awesome in the grand scheme of things. If you’re looking for an incredibly investing movie with likable characters (in addition to strongly delivered performances), a host of great music, and a terrific message that will resonate with many viewers, School of Rock is one of those movies you just have to see. It’s perfection on all levels and is straight-up fun to watch. Definitely give it a try if you haven’t already.

Scream (1996)

Scream is the perfect teen horror movie, packed with everything possibly needed in terms of the genre. A brutal, disturbing slasher film, it starts out with a bang (more like a slice) and never lets up. That opening scene is iconic for so many reasons and is easily one of the best parts. But the colorful cast of characters also works to the plot’s advantage, constantly forcing you to question who Neve Campbell’s lead Sidney should trust in the long-run. Once the twist comes, however, it’s genuinely shocking.

Ghostface remains a staple in the horror movie industry because of how the film parodies other ones released prior to it. He works, though, because of the relationship he shares with each of the characters, which (if you can imagine it) would add to the anxiety, knowing that the person killing you is one that knows you personally. Arguments can be made about the dumbed-down nature of the teens, but that can be easily resolved by explaining that it just adds to Wes Craven’s satirical imitation of the genre as a whole. The film is easily one of the best horror flicks of all time and one of the best school ones too.

Sixteen Candles (1984)

Sixteen Candles totally wouldn’t work today. Not a chance. It builds upon the labels it gives its characters and the way it shapes them around the story. Racist stereotypes, characters talking about “violating” their significant others and Anthony Michael Hall literally being credited as “The Geek”! But even with that in mind, the film rarely feels trite, instead feeling earnest and unique in that the way it writes everything around Molly Ringwald’s character Samantha while also providing plenty of comic relief.

Does it still hold up well, though? Yes, it does. Nothing is really perfect about this movie, but it’s so enjoyable and well-versed in what it aspires to be that it doesn’t really matter if it’s flawless or not. The characters are so freakin’ entertaining to watch and their interactions are what the film is built upon, yet it somehow never topples under the weight of those odds. Another John Hughes classic, the movie starts out slow but eventually spans into a really funny and heartwarming teen film. Senseless ‘80s humor aside, it’s a really great watch in terms of setting, acting, and enjoyment.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good Marvel movie, but it also works as a homage to the classic John Hughes movies it’s clearly inspired by. Other Spider-Man films have tackled the school life of Peter Parker, but this one does it especially well by giving a particularly modernized take on it. By giving us a look at the character as he deals with the typical issues faced at his age, the film also balances the duality of his alter ego really well, leading to a particularly interesting predicament and twist near the end.

Tom Holland delivers a solid and grounded performance as the titular web-slinger while also providing fun and realistic interactions such as his friend Ned (who steals every scene he’s in) and his crush Liz, who works toward the emotional core of the story. In addition, Michael Keaton’s villain is increasingly interesting and serves as one of the high points of an already great movie. Even when some areas don’t reach their potential, the mentor relationship Tony Stark shares with Peter adds a nice heart to round everything out in the long-run. Is it the best Marvel movie? No. Is it still good? Yes.

Superbad (2007)

Superbad is raunchy, yes, but the story and message it carries make it different than others like it. Propelled by the two leads, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera (playing versions of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg), the film makes a statement about the reasons they do what they do, which leads to a heartwarming finale between them. In addition to the leads, Emma Stone’s, Seth Rogen’s and Bill Hader’s performances are simply awesome.

Truly iconic, there are so many quotable lines and memorable moments, such as the liquor store robbery, the dick-drawing montage, and the reveal of Fogell’s fake I.D (“I am McLovin!”). In the end, though, it comes down to the strong theme of friendship, and the realization that nothing lasts forever. By showing that the only reason they wanted to get wasted was to escape their grief about going to different colleges, it contributes an important message about relationships and how the eventual ending of them is okay. Superbad isn’t for everyone, but it still holds up as one of the best teen movies ever.

Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash is easily the most disturbingly complex film on this list, propelled by both Miles Teller’s and J.K. Simmons’ performances in addition to the moving and brutally riveting story. The simple visual of Teller’s blood on the drumset is enough to evoke a strong sense of distress from the viewer, and the punishing dialogue is a treat to those who wish for a smartly written, engaging thriller that does just that: it thrills you, and definitely deserved every accolade it received.

Damien Chazelle’s stunning direction and sound editing make this more than your average drama, and the insane level of tense character development, interactions, and masterful cinematography all build up to an exhilarating climax that leaves you wanting more. Chazelle delivers a masterpiece on all fronts, creating a phenomenal vision that succeeds in every way possible. It is one of the finest, most elegantly crafted movies of the past few years and needs to be seen by everyone.

Wonder (2017)

Adapted from the bestselling book by R.J. Palacio, Wonder follows a young boy with a facial deformity forced to attend public school for the first time. It’s a heartbreaking look at the ordeal kids face and the ways that they affect everybody around them. Even when it focuses more on Auggie’s family and friends than it does on him, the message is clear and thought-provoking. Jacob Tremblay’s performance is truly inspiring, as well as Julia Roberts’ and Owen Wilson’s as his parents.

The important themes of friendship pop up throughout and the strong message stays that way, never once drifting into over-the-top melodrama. You’ll be moved to tears multiple times, but is that a bad thing? No, definitely not. It’s thanks to the tremendous character interactions and emotional investment that you give to them. The movie comes close to being perfect and becomes more than your typical tearjerker in that sense, showing that the only opinions that matter are the ones of those who deserve to get to know you and that everyone deserves a standing ovation at least once in their lives.

‘X-Men’ Franchise (2000-present)

Okay, so these really aren’t school movies, but the friendships that blossom at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters are so admirable and enjoyable, it’s hard not to appreciate the level of depth that goes into each kid’s life. But while the kids are definitely some of the focus, it’s nice to see the depth that goes into the relationship with their mentors as well, such as Logan, Storm, and Charles. It’s really nice to see them all team up in the end and to share experiences and memories together that will last.

A special shoutout goes to Apocalypse, which is admittedly one of the weaker entries, but it gives such a fun interpretation of the ‘80s that, at some points, makes it hard to hate. In addition, the performances and chemistry between the young actors, especially Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan. And don’t forget about the spin-offs! Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Colossus make great side characters to both of the Deadpool flicks, adding even more humor to films already packed to the brim with it. All in all, the franchise serves up a little bit of everything, making it truly memorable in the grand scheme of things.

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