Back to School!

Betsy gets all “summative assessment” with 5 non-canon high school movie greats.


High school movies are my favorite. Even though I’m reaching, now, into my mid-thirties… movies about high school are often still the most fun, the most raw, the most relevant. High school is this weird mess of everyone who lives in a particular area forced to be all together having these formative experiences – each claiming their identity, experiencing big and little tragedies, falling in and out of love, rebelling and having a wild and explosive good time.

And so, a back to school list for back to school time… 5 great movies that include all the high school movie musts:

  1. A misunderstood protagonist Everyone thought Ren was a troublemaker… but he just wanted to dance and advocate for public policy changes! Footloose, 1984.
  2. Unlikely romance  Bender and Claire, in the closet, with the diamond earring – The Breakfast Club, 1985.
  3. Nerds  In Can’t Hardly Wait, William actually brings a card with him to the party so he can scientifically measure his blood alcohol content relative to the number of beers to water he consumes AND one of his nerd friends actually says the line “My retainer looks like a Klingon war ship.” 1998.
  4. An Epic Party  Oh my god, so many! The most epic was probably Ferris’ lip sync parade down Michigan Avenue in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986.
  5. A Super Triumphant Victory  The burn book distribution in Mean Girls – and subsequent bus accidents and lessons learned and apologies – set the bar high. 2004.

I think it would take me forever – and would cause me a lot of anxiety – to rank the best high school movies of all time, so that’s not what we’re going to do here. Instead, here are 5 really great and completely non-traditional high school movies that probably wouldn’t show up on a traditional high school movie list. These are mold-breakers – set in high school/about high schoolers but with an oddball twist. All selections will be graded on the 5 criteria above to assess how “high school” they are… and get bonus points for: 

  • A dreamy guy/girl 
  • A cool teacher
  • Humiliation
  • Prom
  • A fist fight
  • Experimentation with substances
  • Sports
  • Best friends
  • A terrible Principal
  • Poorly timed zits
  • Iconic fashion
  • Bullies

It’s really scientific, trust me. Let’s get evaluative!

5. Hackers

hackers_2NOTE: 4/5 hackers wear roller blades everywhere they go. Makes them easy to spot.

OK – let’s be clear. Hackers is ridiculous. Jonny Lee Miller is Zero Cool/Crash Override, a hacker who took down more than 1,500 systems when he was only 11 because he is a HACKER man. No computer or phone line until his 18th birthday – what!? Zero Cool moves to NYC, goes to a new school, meets a badass crew of hacker kids, gets a boner for Angelina Jolie, rollerblades all over the place, and saves the environment. Also, Cyberdelia – which is pretty much the Hacker version of The Bronze. Hack the planet!

Report Card

Misunderstood protagonist: C+. Everyone constantly underestimates Crash Override. He’s hacker royalty and they don’t even know it! 1,507 systems! 

Unlikely romance: C-. Only because it isn’t really unlikely. Crash Override and Acid Burn are clearly made for each other, despite Acid’s douchey motorcycle makeout boyfriend. It takes them forever to figure it out though! They spend most of the movie bickering as they team up.

Nerds: B+. Joey doesn’t even have a handle! What a nerd.  Also, Matthew Lillard all day long.

An Epic Party: A. Cyberdelia is like hacker prom every goddamn day.

A Super Triumphant Victory: A. Hackers pretty much save the world AND Crash and Burn get to make out in a pool during the closing credits.

+4 bonus points for a dreamy girl, a cool teacher, humiliation, iconic fashion.

4. Brick


JGL, getting punched in the face like it’s his job.

Rian Johnson’s stylized and intriguing HS-set film noir follows Brendan, a loner whose investigation of the death of the love of his life leads him deep into the dangerous and seedy criminal underworld of his school’s upper crust. Sleepless and strained and badass with a self-aware streak, this is the most unusual and coolest HS movie I have ever seen. It is definitely not a comedy – but it is gripping and baby JGL really brings it with his teenage gravitas.

Report Card

Misunderstood protagonist: B-. Brendan isn’t really misunderstood – but he is super mysterious. He’s powerful because he’s smart and he’s working all the angles – so he’s always a step ahead of everyone, including his school administrators. 

Unlikely romance: B+. The chemistry between Brendan and Laura, the femme fatale, is palpable – even though she clearly can’t be trusted.

Nerds: A. Brendan’s Dr. Watson is “The Brain,” a guy with thick glasses who knows everybody’s locker combination.

An Epic Party: A-. Laura’s jazzy upper crust costume fete is dreamy and stylish and otherworldly.

A Super Triumphant Victory: B. Brendan solves the crime and kicks everyone’s ass but he can never bring Emily back. Victorious, sure – but a PI’s life is defined by inner struggle, not triumph.

+5 bonus points for a fist fight, experimentation with substances, sports, a terrible Principal, bullies.

3. Saved!

Saved_Patrick and Jena

Being pregnant is a drag.

Set in a Christian high school, Saved! tells the story of Mary, an upstanding member of her school’s all-girl worship band, who gives up her flower to save her Christian boyfriend from the scourge of homosexuality…. and oops, gets pregnant. Funny but with a biting parody, an incredibly talented cast, and a huge heart – Saved! captures the anxiety of trying to define what you believe in, figure out who your real friends are, and tackle the tough stuff that comes with growing up.

Report Card

Misunderstood protagonist: A. Mary successfully hides her pregnancy until a few short days before she goes into labor… all the while battling the rejection that comes from “turning away from her faith.” 

Unlikely romance: A. Pregnant Mary and Pastor Skip’s son (Patrick Fugit) wear the same alien headgear, nearly smooch in a magical shopping mall holiday gear storage closet, and ultimately, beat the odds, go to prom, and go into labor together.

Nerds: C. This movie deals more in outcasts and rejects than true HS movie nerds. Although really – a lot of the kids in this movie are nerds. A lot.

An Epic Party: D. Does a prayer circle count?

A Super Triumphant Victory: A+. Mary’s speech at the end of this movie about how no one fits in 100% of the time nearly moves me to tears every time I watch it. 

+ 6 bonus points for a dreamy guy, humiliation, prom, best friends, a poorly timed zit, bullies.

2. The Girl Next Door


This is how it feels to go out with Elisha Cuthbert.

This movie is so much better than I expected. Our hero, Matthew, is a senior who regrets that he’s been too busy being an overachiever to have crazy teenage adventures. Then the hottest girl in the world moves into his next door neighbor’s house. Turns out she is also sweet, adventurous, and fun and… trying to escape her early career in hard core pornography. Crazy adventures in the name of love ensue. Unpredictable, badass, sweet, and funny, with an amazing performance by Timothy Olyphant. This movie is so good, seriously – don’t miss it.

Report Card

Misunderstood protagonist: A. Despite his accomplishments, no one has even the slightest concept of the depth of Matthew’s brilliance.

Unlikely romance: A. The greatest surprise of this movie is that Matthew and Danielle really, truly, dig each other. And they kind of put it on the line for each other again and again. It’s inspiring.

Nerds: A. Matthew’s two best friends (including baby Paul Dano) at the porn convention is just the best thing ever.

An Epic Party: A. There are TWO great parties in this movie – the aforementioned porn convention and the high school party where Matthew first finds his balls and smooches that hottie.

A Super Triumphant Victory: A+. On every front. I won’t give it away – but A extra plus.

+7 bonus points for a dreamy girl, prom, a fist fight, experimentation with substances, best friends, a terrible Principal, bullies.

1. Detention

Detention_Claptop 2

Those sunglasses.

One of my all time favorites, Detention is a high school slasher time traveling romantic comedy with a dance scene, aliens, Canadians, Josh Hutcherson, wrestling, Saturday detention, MMMBop, taxidermy, postmodernism, and a costume party. Our hero, Riley, is adorably awkward – burned by her best friend, broken ankle, and being pursued by a serial killer. This movie moves fast, has tight dialogue and snappy editing, crazy style, a great sense of humor, and a wildly cohesive and totally out there plot. The most fun!

Report Card

Misunderstood protagonist: A. Many times throughout Detention, other students refer to Riley as if she were a dude. 

Unlikely romance: A-. Slight ding here because it’s so clear that Riley and Clapton belong together… so it’s not really unlikely? But that doesn’t make it any less awesome when they become prom royalty.

Nerds: A-. Toshiba actually builds a time machine out of the school’s taxidermied (alien) bear mascot. He’s a genius! He does have a tattoo on his arm though – so he’s a little cooler than your average HS movie nerd.

An Epic Party: A. Costumes, makeouts, fist fights, dancing, bonfires, murder… what the hell do you want!?

A Super Triumphant Victory: A+. Riley and Clapton save the whole town of Grizzly Lake from oblivion by time traveling 19 years into the past and helping two lost souls make a love connection. And that’s not even really spoiling it! I won’t give away the rest, it’s so awesome.

+10 bonus for a dreamy guy, a cool teacher, humiliation, prom, a fist fight, experimentation with substances, sports, best friends, a terrible Principal, bullies.

Is your favorite non-traditional HS movie not on the list? Add it in the comments and I’ll grade it for you. Scientifically.

Have a great school year, everyone!

– Betsy

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