“Blue Spring” (2001)
Based on the eponymous manga, “Blue Spring” is a Japanese coming-of-age film that thrives on the basis of its distinctiveness. In the film, students at Asashi High, a run-down high school in Tokyo, deal with the everyday adolescent problems of growing up — drifting away from their friends and contemplating the uncertain future. Director Toshiaki Toyoda loosely examines the students’ interactions, favoring generous realism and authentic dialogue, but where “Blue Spring” really stands apart is in depicting the violent, dangerous surroundings of Asashi. It gives the film an energetic kick and ups the dramatic stakes and emotional resonance of “Blue Spring’s” deeply familiar conflicts.
In a daring move for a first-time director, Rian Johnson combined two unlikely genres — high school and neo-noir — to give birth to the strange and unique lovechild that is “Brick.” Set in a Southern California suburb and starring a young Joseph-Gordon Levitt (who would later go on to star in Johnson’s most recent feature, “Looper”) “Brick” approaches the absurd task at hand with both earnestness and gravity. Gordon-Levitt plays a student named Brendan, who receives a mysterious call from an ex-girlfriend begging for his help before being abruptly cut off. Brendan, slipping smoothly into the role of hard-boiled detective, begins following the abstract clues he has gathered from the phone call, such as the words “tug,” “pin” and the titular “brick.” We see the classic ensemble of noir characters — the all-knowing informant, the police chief who threatens to take the protagonist off the case, the brunette femme fatale — all transposed into a high school environment, with a hidden drug ring at the center of it all.
“The Class (Entre le Murs)” (2008)
Laurent Cantet’s transcendent “The Class” is a powerful foray into teacher-student dynamics. Teacher and novelist François Bégaudeau stars as a fictionalized version of himself, as he finds both purpose and struggle in his year teaching racially-mixed students in a tough Parisian neighborhood. Cantet directs with startling naturalism in the simple back-and-forth between the adult and the kids, while his exploration of teaching is as meticulous as it is revelatory. Overall, the film is a penetratingly humanistic study, digging into a diversity of characters with empathy and complexity. Everyone seemed to agree on the brilliance of this one: It was nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Dazed and Confused” (1993)
It’s difficult to remember that “Dazed and Confused” was made by Richard Linklater in 1993 and not, as it so convincingly appears, in the ’70s. As a matter of fact, in 1976, Linklater was a teenager grudgingly making his way through high school in Austen, Texas, much like the protagonists in this film. Unlike the director’s critically acclaimed “Boyhood,” which follows a single character over twelve years, “Dazed and Confused” follows its ensemble of hormonal high school creatures over the course of a single day — the last day of school on the 200th anniversary of America’s Independence. We see them hotbox their cars before heading into class; we see them flirt with teachers and discuss feminist issues in “Gilligan’s Island” while smoking cigarettes in the bathroom; we see a pudgy Ben Affleck get pranked and we relish every moment. Matthew McConaughey practices that drawl we have come to know so well, while Milla Jovovich smokes a lot of weed and sings about aliens. We go along with the odd (and often painful) traditions that all members of this microcosm must partake in if they are to become accepted members of the community. And most importantly, we learn that it’s always cooler if you have a joint on you.
Young Reese Witherspoon battling Matthew Broderick over a high school election? It’s as great and ridiculous as it sounds. Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy “Election” follows Broderick as Jim McAllister, a government teacher who notices that driven overachiever Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) is using dirty tactics to become school president. In order to lessen her chances of winning, he convinces an unqualified but popular student to run. When Tracy finds out his plan, it becomes a fight for the presidency. With biting satire, “Election” pokes fun at politics through Tracy’s determination to win. Voiceovers from four different characters switches things up and maintains the Payne-style first seen in “Citizen Ruth.”
“Get Real” (1998)
The cruelties of high school are widely known and are well covered topics in film, though they never get old or less resonant. While Simon Shore’s “Get Real” covers the standard fare of discomfort and misfortune, he focuses specifically on the sexual awakenings of the handsome and awkward Steven (Ben Silverstone). To add to the typical pressure of such discovery, Steven is gay, an integral piece of his personhood that he is forced to hide thanks to the judgement and lack of acceptance from his high school peers. Fortunately, he finds a lover in the school jock, John (Brad Gorton). The expected drama ensues and is certainly heartfelt, as genuine love and care is forced to be hid from the awful ignorance of high schoolers. While hiding one’s sexuality is not an experience everyone goes through, being forced to pretend and lie certainly is, and it’s this tragedy the British feature utilizes so that everyone can sympathize with its protagonist.
“Ghost World” (2001)
Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 comedy-drama stars a pre-“American Beauty” Thora Birch and a pre-everything Scarlett Johansson in an adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic of the same name that deals with the friendship of two misanthropes as they begin reflecting on their lives as high school graduation looms. Caustic, unambitious and on the cusp of adulthood, Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Johansson) find little interest in their futures and instead concede to a life hating life together. While Rebecca settles into an unexceptional career in retail, Enid develops a peculiar fascination and an unlikely friendship with a lonely, middle-aged man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi). The friends find themselves drifting apart among changing priorities, presenting audiences with a look into early life melancholia and the consequences of an unwillingness to grow up.
“Half Nelson” (2006)
Ryan Gosling delivers an outstanding performance as junior high school teacher Dan Dunne in “Half Nelson.” Set in Brooklyn, the teacher is not an inspiring role model for the inner-city students. His drug addiction overshadows his intelligence, as he straddles the line between right and wrong. The filmmakers, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, utilize indirect techniques to subtly develop the film’s painful truths and contradicting themes of politics, history and race with the utmost sincerity. The plot centers on the relationship between the teacher and a young black girl, Drey. She finds him unconscious, lying on the floor of a bathroom, and leverages the knowledge of the cause to get closer to him. He needs an incentive; she needs a father figure and a friend. The film finds hope in Dunne’s history lessons on dialectics, a theory that opposing and contradicting forces generate a positive movement. It is not the history lessons that explain dialectics but rather Drey and Dan’s relationship and individual lives, which push and pull like the wrestling hold of the film’s title.
The 1988 black comedy stars Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in a dark and clever deconstruction of the tremendously popular wave of teen movie releases, of the time, honing in on high school cliques and teenage angst so sharply that it quickly found itself elevated from indie bust to cult hit. “Heathers” centers on 17-year-old Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) as she is invited to join a popular high school clique. As feared as they are hated, the group of alpha bitches soon jade Veronica, pushing her toward a relationship with misanthropic bad boy J.D. (Slater). What starts off as dreamy and romantic spirals into something more than Veronica had bargained, for the tryst accumulates a body count and J.D. acquires a thirst for violence. The release history behind “Heathers” and the eerie parallel fates of two of the film’s stars have only added to its cult status, though its cynical wit and pinpoint accuracy would have likely kept itself up there anyway.
“If… ” (1968)
Exploring the mind and pent up aggression of the high school male, Lindsay Anderson’s iconic British drama “If…” presents a brutal take on one’s time in boarding school. Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) attends a historic, posh British school, only to find the experience stifling. From being bored with conformist pressure to bullied by more senior members of the school than he can count, the film explores the depths of his mind and takes off as he seizes the limitless potential of his own id — his resulting fantasies go from fantastically sexual to barbarically violent. Infusing the surreal within a banal sphere like boarding school, “If…” makes bold statements concerning upheaval and the anger of young men that are still stark and noteworthy today.
“Napoleon Dynamite” (2004)
“Napoleon Dynamite” is more than just the iconic 2004 comedy that inspired the once-ubiquitous “Vote for Pedro” shirt. The film follows Napoleon (Jon Heder), a listless, short-tempered teenager whose creative pursuits get him through each slow day of high school. Despite being regularly bullied and made a pariah by the majority of his peers, he befriends other awkward classmates, Deb (Tina Majorino) and Pedro (Efren Ramirez). Pedro eventually runs for class president with campaign help from Napoleon, on the backdrop of Napoleon’s unstable home life, often unsuccessful romantic pursuits, wild grandma and pet llama. A story of underdogs prevailing, “Napoleon Dynamite” has become both a quintessential part of the indie high school movie canon and a deviation from the genre’s typical tropes.
“Palo Alto” (2013)
Based on a 2010 collection of short stories by actor James Franco, “Palo Alto” finds debut filmmaker Gia Coppola expressing the same cool, detached and stylish aura as her aunt Sofia (“Lost in Translation”). The film centers on three youths navigating the teenage wastelands of Palo Alto, California: class virgin April (Emma Roberts), the soft-spoken Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and his bad boy friend, Ned (Nat Wolff). The film is more or less your standard coming-of-age story in which the kids aimlessly navigate their transition into adulthood, but although nothing monumental ends up happening amongst these clueless high school seniors, Coppola seems less interested in the plot points of “coming-of-age” and more in the feeling of it. With the sensual cinematography of Autumn Durald constantly visualizing the characters’ moody angst and sexually frustrated souls, “Palo Alto” makes an indelible impression in its atmosphere of high school strife.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2013)
It’s fitting that Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” based on his beloved book of the same name, features a subplot about a pack of high school kids’ obsession with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Although that film came out whole decades before the film’s protagonists were born, their affection for it is real, immediate and tangible. They just love it. People feel that same way about “Perks,” a story that could very well be dated (there’s an awful lot about mix tapes in there) but that still retains the kind of elemental truths that transcend release dates. The stories that hold together the feature — charmingly acted by a pack of deeply talented younger actors, including Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller — may come complete with veritable time stamps, but the emotions and lessons have no expiration date. That’s what made Chbosky’s book such an instant classic, and it’s an idea (and an ideal) that runs right through the film. Mix tapes go out of fashion, but teen angst told well never does.
“Rocket Science” (2007)
Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz took inspiration from his acclaimed documentary “Spellbound,” which follows the lives of those in the National Spelling Bee, and made the coming of age film “Rocket Science.” The parallels are similar: High school kids dealing with the awkwardness and stress of growth while competing against one another. But rather than document spelling bees, Blitz fictionalizes the competitive realm of debate teams. Stuttering Hal (Reece Daniel Thompson) is asked by pretty and eloquent Ginny (Anna Kendrick) to be her debate partner, a curious choice what with his speech impediment, though he accepts given his immediate attraction for her. Though the premise seems a bit worn, the story develops interestingly and realistically, consisting of a cast of bizarre characters and heartbreak that is far too sad, funny and real to be anything other than poignant.
Plenty of high school-set films have fixated on the trials and travails of dorkdom and its vicious effect on the nerdiest of teens (in short, high school is hell, and it’s even worse when you’re a geek), but Wes Anderson’s oddly timeless “Rushmore” asks its viewers to embrace the underdog and get hip to being, well, not hip at all. Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer isn’t cool, but his relentless dedication to the greatest thing in his life (a high school, just how geeky can you get) is cool. It’s also awkwardly aspirational, a tiny bit deranged and sweet enough to make everything go down easily — at least, when you’re not hysterically laughing at Max’s continually ill-informed decisions. No matter how self-assured Max appears to be (having perfect attendance will do that to a guy), “Rushmore” is still, in true high school movie fashion, about him finding himself and figuring out what that all means. It’s just that he — like the film — does it a fair bit differently than everyone else.