When you think of 'Back to School' movies, you probably think of Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. Or maybe Revenge of the Nerds. Or To Sir, with Love if you're into the classics. But not every movie is a classic. Sometimes they're just really, really good, or simply too new to have stood the test of time. You already know many of the best school movies ever made, so instead of just telling you to watch The Breakfast Club for the hundredth time, we're presenting you with The Eleven OTHER Great Back to School Movies, because this category wouldn't even exist if it weren't for the underdogs.
That’s What I Am (dir. Michael Pavone, 2011)
Michael Pavone’s tenderhearted coming of age tale practically power slid under everyone’s radar last year, which is a pity, because it was one of the most endearing school movies in a very long time. Chase Ellison stars as a young boy in the mid-1960s who tries to fly under the radar himself, avoiding ridicule and responsibility until his teacher (Ed Harris) assigns him a school project with the class pariah, a giant redheaded boy called “Big G” (Alexander Walters). Yes, our hero learns valuable lessons about maturity and tolerance, but Pavone never lets That’s What I Am turn maudlin. His film evokes genuine nostalgia thanks to a deft directorial hand, a charming cast and a witty, honest screenplay.
Gross Anatomy (dir. Thom E. Eberhardt, 1989)
Largely forgotten today but reasonably popular in its time, Gross Anatomy is one of those rare school movies that’s actually about studying. Matthew Modine is a first year medical student who relies on his natural talent and charisma to coast in school, but his efforts to woo one of his classmates, Daphne Zuniga, are stymied because he doesn’t seem to take his solemn profession seriously. Slackers are kind of cool in high school, when every class seems perfunctory, but when you actually need to know the material the goofball antics are a little less enticing. Smart, well-acted and grossly underappreciated.
Just One of the Guys (dir. Lisa Gottlieb, 1985)
How seriously did you take your high school newspaper? We’re guessing not half as seriously as Joyce Hyser, who suspects sexism is afoot in her class and decides to go undercover at a rival school, dressed as a boy. The usual gender-centric jokes ensue – “All balls itch, it’s a fact” – and naturally she falls in love with the hapless hunk who thinks he’s made a new best platonic friend. Hyser’s boy impersonation is less than perfect, but she plays it off thanks to a willing goofiness and a little brother, Billy Jayne, who may be the most outrageously oversexed teen in history.
The New Guy (dir. Ed Decter, 2002)
One of the last films of the turn of the century teen comedy boom, and one of the best, stars the ever-gangly DJ Qualls as a perpetual loser who gets himself expelled so he can start fresh in a new school as the resident badass. His efforts to create a name for himself have an infectious Ferris Bueller-like theatricality – he’s delivered to class in the back of a van like some kind of homicidal maniac – that makes you grin through the silly bits, when you’re not laughing your ass off. Young Zooey Deschanel plays one of his potential love interests, as does Eliza Dushku, who gets a whole montage of fetish outfits just because the narrator, prison inmate Eddie Griffin, is getting lonely.
Peggy Sue Got Married (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1986)
Parents, are you having trouble figuring out your kids? Can’t imagine why they’re dreading going back to school in the so-called “best years of their lives?” This is the movie for you. When Kathleen Turner faints at her 25-year high school reunion, she wakes up back in her teenaged body, armed with the knowledge of modern history and her own failed marriage to her teen sweetheart, Nicolas Cage, whose accent cannot be described in mere words. She plagiarizes a not-yet-written Beatles song for his pop group, seduces the local beatnik and indulges in all the other wish-fulfillment fantasies adults confuse with the actual high school experience. It’s an odd film, especially coming from the director of Apocalypse Now, but it gets better as you age along with Peggy Sue, and forget all the impossible decisions you had to deal with as a kid.
Sky High (dir. Mike Mitchell, 2005)
The X-Men may attend “Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters,” but they don’t do a hell of a lot of studying. That’s just one of the things that makes Mike Mitchell’s superhero high school flick so entertaining: all the students are superheroes or sidekicks in training, and all the classes are specifically designed to prepare them for life-threatening danger. It’s also funny as hell. Michael Angarano stars as the son of Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston, the greatest superheroes in the world, but when class starts before his powers kick in he becomes a school pariah. It’s the standard high school caste system storyline but in a cleverly realized superhero milieu. If you thought it was just for kids, you’re wrong: it’s just for fanboys.
The Faculty (dir. Robert Rodriguez, 1998)
Teachers are monsters… literally. That’s the high concept behind this clever and exciting sci-fi thriller starring Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Jordana Brewster, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Jon Stewart, Usher and tons of other name actors besides. Herrington High School has been invaded by body snatchers, and a disparate group of teenaged all-stars and misfits are forced to band together to save the school, and the world, before everyone turns into Student of the Fear… er, “year.” Remarkably violent, filled with memorable special effects and packed with unusually well-written characters, The Faculty is nevertheless considered Sin City director Robert Rodriguez’s “sell out” film. If only all studio products were this good.
Three O’Clock High (dir. Phil Joanou, 1987)
Imagine if Sam Raimi directed a John Hughes movie, and you’ll have some idea of why Three O’Clock High is so great. Casey Siemaszko (Biff Tannen’s 3D glasses-wearing thug from Back to the Future) stars as a wallflower who accidentally picks a fight with the most dangerous bully in the county, and he only has until three o’clock to weasel out of it. His solutions just make his situation worse and worse, leading to police investigations, massive property damage and accidentally seducing his teacher in front of the whole class. Director Phil Joanou and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld shoot the hell out of this movie, with long, elaborate takes and wide-angle lenses that perfectly capture Siemaszko’s desperation. Few high school heroes have ever been this screwed, and in Three O’Clock High you feel every hilarious second of it.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (dir. Alan Arkush, 1979)
This cult classic from producer Roger Corman, director Alan Arkush and uncredited director Joe Dante (Gremlins) captures the playful rebellion of youth as well as any other movie, even if it does feel a little grungy. Halloween co-star P.J. Soles stars as a Ramones-obsessed teen who spring to action when the villainous Miss Togar (Mary Woronov, always great) tears up her tickets to their concert. The anti-establishment message is gloriously overdramatized, and with the overzealous parents fearing for their children’s safety because The Ramones’ music has a tendency to make mice explode. Which is awesome. A great soundtrack, a lovable cast and a message of innocent revolution that no parent could get upset about in this day and age.
Brick (dir. Rian Johnson, 2005)
Looper director Rian Johnson got his start directing this exceptional film noir that just happens to take place in high school. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is magnetic as Brendan Frye, an anti-social whiz kid determined to solve the mystery of who killed his ex-girlfriend, played by “Lost’s” Emilie de Ravin. The stark cinematography and hardboiled detective dialogue make Brick feel exciting from start to finish, with only the occasional gag – “If you have a disciplinary issue with me, write me up or suspend me… and I’ll see you at the parent teacher conference” – calling attention to the whacked out concept. Best of all, Brick isn’t just a great gimmick movie: if you took the story out of high school, the characters and storyline would still make it one of the best noirs of the last few decades.
Real Genius (dir. Martha Coolidge, 1985)
Most high school movies have a nerdy kid or two. In Real Genius they comprise the entire cast, and they’re just as fun to watch as any other students you’re likely to find on-screen. Gabriel Jarret stars as a high school wunderkind who gets an early college scholarship, only to be paired with a young Val Kilmer, the biggest party animal genius imaginable. Kilmer steals the show with a string of classic lines like, “I was pondering the immortal words of Socrates, who said… ‘I drank what?’” but the rest of Real Genius is a wonderful celebration of scholastic excellence, which we learn can be just as cool as slacking off, and not just because you get to build badass lasers and blow up your professor’s house with popcorn. That rare school movie that actually makes you want to be a better student, Real Genius is exactly that. Really.
What are your favorite 'Back to School' movies?