Staff Recs: High School Movies

This week, the Arts Desk gets a little nostalgic about high school and gives recs for some underrated gems in the genre.

As college students, it is not easy to revisit high school, but a fun and feasible way to look back at those innocent and naive times is through movies. From classics like “Rebel Without a Cause” to recent indies such as “Edge of Seventeen,” high school movies have always been a staple of cinema. This week, the Arts Desk gives its recommendations on some of our favorites in the genre.

“17 Again”
“17 Again” casts Zac Efron in that familiar role of high school basketball star and lover. I imagine the pitch for this movie was to cram “High School Musical” and “Freaky Friday” into 100 minutes. The least believable part of “17 Again” isn’t that middle-aged Matthew Perry returns to Zac Efron form, but that Efron, as a 5-foot-8 pretty boy, somehow has a bright college and professional basketball career ahead of him with some funky mechanics in his jump shot. Nonetheless, this schmaltzy production finds success in what it aims to do. Who wouldn’t want to be 17 forever? It’s a number that holds a special place in the hearts of the public — think of discography by from The Beatles to XXXTentaction. You could watch “17 Again” as an 18-year-old and still sink into a syrupy nostalgia for better days. For so many, 17 was a time of newfound freedom paired with the manageable responsibilities of a high schooler. “17 Again” captures that feeling and puts it in harsh contrast with the monotonous realities of middle age. — Dante

“Dead Poets Society”
“Dead Poets Society” leaves the cliches and cheesy musical numbers at the door in its fresh — albeit now 30-year-old — take on the high school experience. The film follows the adventures of the boys at Welton Academy, an exclusive prep school in Vermont, after they’ve been inspired by their new English teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), to seize the day. With carpe diem in mind, the teenage boys risk their parents’ approval and disciplinary action to resurrect the former secret society of their beloved English teacher, the Dead Poets Society. In it, the boys get together in a cave in the woods during the midnight hours to read poetry and discuss philosophy. Trivial as this may seem, the hours the young friends spend studying poetry ignite a fire of rebellion that refuses to be diminished by any number of scoldings or parental disapproval. So, while this may not be the most liberal movie — it did come out in the ’80s — its message remains true: you must rise above it or it will rise above you. If that doesn’t entice you, “Dead Poets Society” also has that awesome “O Captain! My Captain!” scene where the students all stand up on their desks and it’s really emotional and, yeah, you know the one I’m talking about because it’s a great scene. Also, two words: Robin Williams. — Claire

“The Spectacular Now”
A star-making turn for Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley and director James Ponsoldt, this coming-of-age film is nothing short of amazing. The film is not your typical tongue-in-cheek or over-the-top comedy that has historically dominated the high school genre. Instead, it takes a nuanced, dramatic approach. Its egotistical protagonist Sutter Keely (Teller) is on the verge of making one of the most important decisions in his life while applying to colleges, but he ignores his academic responsibilities in favor of his popular lifestyle and gorgeous girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). His life spirals out of control when Cassidy suddenly breaks up with him, he starts failing classes and a drunk joyride lands him on the front lawn of shy classmate Aimee Finicky (Woodley). As Sutter and Aimee strike up a relationship, the former is finally forced to reflect on his selfish nature and tendency to gloss over so many of his personal issues, including his relationship with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler). While many high school films tend to be about journeys of self-discovery, revelations in “The Spectacular Now” actually feel emotionally impactful because of how unafraid it is to tackle its ripe subject matter. It trades the gags, raunch humor and common humor — commonplace in the genre — for subtle performances, fresh writing and smart direction. — Guru

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“Carrie”
When you think “high school movie,” I’ll bet you picture films along the lines of “Mean Girls” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — light and fun movies that lampoon the social hierarchies and teenage dramas of late adolescence. But for me, “Carrie” is the quintessential filmic depiction of the highs and lows of high school. The 1976 Stephen King adaptation, directed by the masterful Brian De Palma, stars a wide-eyed Sissy Spacek as the eponymous Carrie, a withdrawn, socially isolated 17-year-old with telekinetic powers. From the very first scene, when her classmates pelt her with tampons after she gets her period in the locker room showers, Carrie can’t catch a break. The constant abuse she faces at the hands of her fellow students comes to a head when a popular boy asks her to prom as a prank, one she’s too naive to anticipate — the excitement on Carrie’s face as she tries on makeup in a department store is heartbreaking. But when the cruel joke comes to a head with that iconic bucket of pig’s blood, Carrie finally fights back. I’ve never seen another movie depict the specific, horrible jumble of hope, fear, cruelty and late-breaking puberty in such a truthful way. Alex

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