Top 10 Alternative High School Movies

Sir, Sir, we know the answer! We’ve been paying attention in film class, and after watching every high school movie ever made* we’ve deduced that Hollywood would have us believe that school-days were the best days of our lives. But we all know the cold, hard, toilet-head-flushing reality. Luckily, films occasionally show the education system to be a veritable hotbed for the most subversive activities you can get up to before the bell rings. Here is the Best for Film guide to High School Movies – alternative style.

#10. Rushmore (1998)

Wes Anderson is exactly the kind of director who can convey the gut-wrenchingly dark humour of teen angst on the big screen. In Indie drama Rushmore he shows us that Private school kids can be losers too, big time. Jason Schwartzmann’s beret-wearing Max Fischer is so nerdsome it almost hurts to watch him prattle around the after school clubs and silly debates. Pair him with the blisteringly talented (and, for some reason, moustachioed) Bill Murray, and watch them fight over mutual love interest Olivia Williams, to see how Rushmore soars far away from table-standing shouts of ‘Seize the day’. An entertaining piss-take, Rushmore imagines a school where a delusional yet triumphant geek with an obvious Oedipus complex reigns supreme. Not something you see every day.

Honourable mention: Elephant (2003). Gus Van Sant’s quiet spellbinder of a High school massacre movie is worth a watch.

9. Fast Times at Ridgemount High (1982)

An oldie but a goodie, Fast Times At Ridgemount High does its best to create a 3D version of every possible school stereotype. Worth seeing for Sean Penn’s glorious Jeff Spicoli alone, the surfer dude says forget greed, weed is good, spawning a thousand inferior imitations. Written by Cameron Crowe, it eloquently shows that teenage boys and girls alike are obsessed with sex, and when it comes to finally doing the deed, it’s a hilariously grubby experience. Money and status bear little importance at Ridgemount High, with hero Judge Rheinhold happily working in the burger joint whilst still managing to pull the chicks. And if that’s still not enough, the film quickens pulses as the camera gazes at Phoebe Cates suggestively removing her cherry red bikini. Fast Times even features a young Nicolas Cage and a character called Mr Hand, showing that high school can be cool for all.

Honourable mention: Dazed and Confused (1993) a whimsical stoner movie, playfully portraying the feeling of freedom on the last day of School.

#8. Entre Les Murs (2008)

Entre les Murs (or The Class as it was known in America) makes this list because it breaks a cardinal sin in High School Movie lore, showing the unvarnished reality of the modern education system. A French, docu-style film about aggravating students sounds awful on paper, but the film is incredibly witty and moving. Faced with a school full of restless and unchallenged pupils, teacher François is exhausted, outnumbered, and constantly having his patience tested. But what makes the film so watchable, is the natural humour found in the normal school day. François is not an actor by trade but his frank attitude mark him out as a first class teacher, meaning that Entre Les Murs leaves you begging for more. Not a feeling usually associated with language studies.

#7. Election (1999)

How much more subversive can you get than getting Ferris Bueller to play an impotent, ham-fisted teacher in a film about the politics of high school elections? Adequately demonstrating Reese Witherspoon’s range, Election wryly digs at the trivialities between the four walls of the classroom. Teacher and student are enemies in a war of words and later dirty deeds, with Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick taking her nomination for school president far too seriously.  Director Alexander Payne delivers black humour and hateful characters aplenty and it’s a pleasure to watch Matthew Broderick as the easily recognisable stressy teacher who begins to lose all control.

Honourable mention: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) the original take on the naughty boy who’s loved by the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all think he’s a righteous dude.

#6. Easy A (2010)

Easy A is at number 6 with its build-a-shrine approach to the ultimate auteur of the high school movie, John Hughes. It knowingly subverts the subversive-school-genre (bear with us) by showing Emma Stone’s Olive longing to be romanced like she’s starring in Sixteen Candles, but finding herself instead falling for the kid in a squirrel suit, surrounded by religious cheerleaders, and branded the school slut. Easy A plainly states that high school is nothing like a high school movie, whilst simultaneously referencing all the glory days of the genre. The film deftly deals with the power of the vicious school rumour versus the power of a good reputation, and Olive gets points for customising her school uniform on a whole new level. It’s hard not to fall for the film where the normal girl gets one over the entire school, gets the guy, rescues her reputation and drives off into the sunset (on a lawnmower of course**).

#5. Mean Girls (2004)

Mean Girls was always going to be on this list, being as it was penned by Tina Fey, already an outsider as a female comedian in a man’s world. Her take on high school is equally silly and bitchy, parodying chick-cliques with dangerous aplomb. Mean Girls does the virtually impossible by making Lindsay Lohan likeable, as a home-schooled newbie who discovers Queen Bee Regina’s Burn Book filled with slandering secrets and gossip (think: high school version of the Daily Mail), and turns the entire school hierarchy upside down. A high school slapstick movie, Mean Girls has no problem hitting or mowing down key characters, and almost all of the above fantastically-named Plastics have gone on to successful careers, a testament to the superlative script.

UPDATE After a brow-beating from Magda and a whole lot of hand-wringing, spitting and general disgust aimed in the direction of yours truly from the viewing public at large, I stand corrected. I agree that Heathers (1988) should hold joint 5th place with Mean Girls. Winona Ryder gets rejected from the in-crowd, falls in love with Christian Slater and rebels in epic fashion. See the trailer here to learn just how alternative high school revenge can be:

#4. 10 Things I hate about you (1999)

Based on a Shakespeare play, featuring a musical number and some random indie kids 10 Things I Hate About You shouldn’t really be this good. It’s a knowing adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, containing all the elements of your usual high school movie, but putting them together with impeccable style. Geeky Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in love with untouchable Bianca, who can’t date until her intractable bitch of a sister Cat (Julia Stiles) does. When Cat declares a liking for lesbian girl-bands and witty put-downs, Levitt hatches a plan to set her up with the creepiest guy in school, played by dearly departed Heath Ledger. As the film unfolds, none of the kids are quite the caricatures they seem, and every adult is woefully out of touch. Yet it’s the background characters that elevate this movie, including Alison Janney as the most uncaring school counsellor to be committed to celluloid. Plus Ledger’s touching singing whilst bleacher running is the stuff that high school movies should be made of.

Honourable mention: Get Over It (2001) Kirsten Dunst auditions for the school play version of a Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Martin Short’s campest drama teacher ever.

3. Carrie (1976)

High School can be a horrific place, and never more so than in Stephen King’s thriller Carrie. Proving that anything can happen at a high school dance, one minute Carrie is crowned Prom Queen, the next she’s covered in pig blood and going royally off her rocker. Carrie is both scary and unintentionally funny, giving a valid lesson in how religious doctrine and school bullying are a very, very bad combination, and the film still delivers one of the scariest endings in cinematic history. Carrie is at number 3 as it emphasises that school could be so much worse when you have uncontrolled telekinetic power and a gigantic case of PMT.

Honourable mention: Battle Royale (2000) why not deal with unruly brats by ferrying them off to an island and watching them duel to the death?

#2. Brick (2005)

Possibly film’s first high school neo-Noir, Brick is a devilishly clever take on the detective story, weaving its way through an elite drug-addicted high school clique. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (this time in serious mode) stars as school sleuth Brendan Frye, who comes across some bad-ass school bullies when trying to locate his ex-girlfriend’s murderer. Visually cloying, the film jumps around in time with a lingo entirely of its own and is so complex it demands repeat viewing. It is our Number 2 because it is the most intelligent film about school ever made. The brick in question is undefined for half of the movie, with secret notes and signs paying homage to the work of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. Dark and nasty, Brick shows school as no longer a haven of escape from home life, but a den of whispered secrets in a game of life or death.

Honourable mention: Cruel Intentions (1999) Dangerous Liasons for tweenies who would have benefited from some good old-fashioned careers guidance.

#1. Donnie Darko (2001)

If ever a film personified the high school experience, it’s Donnie Darko. Set in the 80’s, Richard Kelly brings the audience into a world that looks and feels eerily familiar. The kids wear uniform, they talk about the Smurfs and take part in pointless general studies exercises. But then books get banned and teachers start polluting young minds with so much more than GCSE algebra. The film casts aspersions on the high school moral majority and it contains this amazing single-take tracking shot of the school corridors, all played out to an award-winning soundtrack. But what makes Donnie Darko top of the heap is how accurately it portrays Donnie’s first school crush, just before he runs off to go and save the world. A film that says ‘Yes, sometimes school-days can be disturbing and bleak, but once in a while they can fill your heart with deep satisfaction and joy’, Donnie Darko helps the viewer realise how important school is in the shaping of adult lives.

*all except The Hot Chick. Everyone has their limits.
** If you don’t know what we’re on about immediately go and rent Can’t Buy me Love

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