A brief history of the high school movie

Megan looks at the history of high school movies, from the 1960s to the present day...

The genre, if you can call it that, of the ‘high school movie’ is a vast one, whether taking into account all films set in high schools, all films about teenagers or all films ABOUT high schools, so it’s natural that everyone’s favourite high school movies won’t be mentioned. Don’t take this personally.

The high school movie from here onwards will be defined as a movie set with the main characters being attendees of high school, even if the majority of the film is set off of the school’s campus. For example, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Ferris and his friends spend most of the film on a, need it be said, day off of school but for many people the film would still count as a 1980s ‘high school movie’.

There’s also a massive number of television shows that focus on this period of life too, such as the late 1990s-early 2000s teen drama (emphasis on the drama) Dawson’s Creek, which lives out most of its seasons in Capeside High School. But for the purpose of this article, we’ll be focusing solely on the big screen, and the similarities and differences between high school films over time.

1960s – Rebel Without a Cause, and the birth of the teenager

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Thanks to the social and sexual revolution that followed the Second World War, the teenager as we know it today was born. Even though the word ‘teenager’ itself had been used throughout the 1950s and possibly earlier, it didn’t hold with it nearly the same connotations as it holds today: angst, independence, drama, sex. It was purely a term for those ‘hip young things’ that lived at the ages of thirteen to nineteen.

This social and sexual revolution was a reaction to the austerity that immediately followed V-Day and helped young people to realise that they could actually have their own identities and live out their lives in the way they wanted. The contraceptive pill meant casual sex was safer and allowed young people to take control of their sex lives too. Drug culture escalated, something that can still be seen in the lives of today’s teens. Films such as Rebel Without a Cause gave an idea of what teenagers wanted to be: guys wanted to be James Dean, girls wanted to be with James Dean. He oozed the independence and sex appeal that teens wanted in their lives now they knew they could take control. He also had a motorbike, so that was cool.

1970s – Grease and burgeoning sexuality

Arguably the most popular, or in other words influential and controversial, high school movie of the seventies is Grease. Compared to the 1960s this film contains innumerable more mentions of sex and popularity, focusing on the relationships, sexual and platonic, between teenagers at Rydell High. These two themes, sex and popularity, from here on become immensely important in high school films of proceeding decades.

Grease isn’t famed for its good morals, the film ending with the main couple only being happy together when Sandy becomes someone she’s not. Rizzo’s pregnancy scare from unprotected sex turns out to be nothing and the T-Birds mooning on live television brings about no punishment. In other words, the characters get away with anything. References to sexual encounters are relatively subtle in the film though, with only more mature audiences being able to decode what the characters say. The whole film acts as a story of the journey to becoming who you truly are, however twisted and questionable that journey is.

1980s – The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller, and the fame of the Brat Pack

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It wasn’t until the 1980s that teenage movie culture really started to pick up in my opinion, especially thanks to the newly fresh-faced and angst-ridden Brat Pack. They starred in a number of movies including The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles just to name a few. The Breakfast Club helped develop the idea that school needn’t be full of cliques, but that everyone was secretly the same and could get along.

The same can be seen in the original film of Hairspray, though on a more serious level through the questioning of racial segregation. Although the film is set in 1962 Baltimore, the message is still there and being introduced: that we’re all the same. Even though these teenage films reference sex and sexual encounters, it isn’t until later that it truly becomes a main theme of the film. If you compare the Brat Pack movies to ones today such as 21 Jump Street and Mean Girls, there’s a distinct lack of conversations about sex or the massive urge to sleep with people in high school. We see Bender and Claire uncomfortably talking about her virginity and Allison lies that she’s a nymphomaniac, but that’s as far as it goes. No crude conversations. No vulgar terms. No real detail. It all looks fairly innocent compared to the supposed worries of today’s teens.

On the other hand, Ferris Bueller is not a character that you’d associate with good morals. He skips school, crashes parades, and fakes phone calls, but Ferris Bueller today still stands as one of the most loved characters of all time. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a film that sides with the high school kids and says ‘hey, the adults aren’t always right and school isn’t always right for everyone’.

Before, and definitely after this film, we see characters like Bueller (though often less likeable) pulling stunts that only benefit themselves and these characters are chastised for their actions. But that’s not what this movie is about. Ferris is a good kid at heart and his parents know that. Everyone in school loves him and, as we see in the end, his sister does too. He knows how to get by in life and he knows you need to embrace everything that happens to you, something that isn’t taught in high schools enough. In school you’re taught how to conform, that you need a job, money and a nice house to be successful.

1990s – Clueless, American Pie and 10 Things I Hate About You

As we enter the 90s, cliques are still a prominent theme which we can see in the ever-loved Clueless as Cher introduces the groups to new girl Tai. Popularity is important to the characters of this film, with one of the main storylines being the transformation from new kid to one of the most popular girls in school. The popular kids hold a good position in the school, with Cher especially being able to change her bad grades with a bit of teacher-persuading without suffering any consequences. Setting up two of her teachers gets her a higher grade which is never questioned. Her father even praises her for dishonestly amending her report card with her skills of negotiation. Cher’s idea of helping others is giving them makeovers and finding them boyfriends. She’s deluded beyond belief and still gets a happy ending – probably not a brilliant moral for young people watching. However there could be worse messages (see Grease), because at least Cher focuses on helping others rather than just herself, right?

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10 Things I Hate About You starts with Barenaked Ladies’ One Week and Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation (notably the theme tune of high school TV show Freaks and Geeks), the high school movie songs of the 90s. There’s the usual run down of the cliques in the school, from the basic beautiful kids, through the coffee people and white Rastas, to the audio-visual geeks. There’s the deep, mysterious female lead that doesn’t get on with anyone but ends up falling head-over-heels for the secretly sensitive bad boy. Then there’s the other story of the quiet, nice guy who swoons over the beautiful, popular girl. The basic outlines of the story fit in with high school movies of the past and future with similar cliques, relationships and parental issues to films like The Breakfast Club. There’s alcohol, there’s dating, there’s a prom and there’s a happy ending.

American Pie is the perfect example of how ‘modern’ teen movies focus their theme more towards drinking and sex rather than friendship circles and angst. Gross humour comes to the forefront, as does the quest for losing virginity. There’s only one thoughtful moment at the end of the film where they recognise the fact that life goes on after high school. The film ends abruptly though after they’ve all had their first serious sexual encounter. They’ve reached their goal, what else is there to show? This attitude is something that can seen in high school movies over the years, but as the years go by it evolves, as we can see entering the noughties.

2000s – Superbad

Produced by Judd Apatow, the king of high school thanks to Freaks and Geeks, Superbad is arguably the teen movie of the noughties. Like American Pie, it focuses on the determination for sex and popularity, with some drinking and drugs thrown in along the way. What makes this film stand apart from its 90s equivalents is its believability. The film’s characters ring true to people you actually grew up knowing at school (if you didn’t know a Fogell, you probably were the Fogell), not always lucky in their romantic pursuits or able to get their hands on expensive liquor from their parent’s booze stash. Getting to sleep with a girl isn’t just a case of trying and succeeding with some alcohol in the system, as this film so clearly shows. Their romantic endeavours whilst drunk are anything but successful, and it’s not until they realise putting in the effort and treating people with respect gets them the girl that they become different to the characters of the 90s. It can be argued that Superbad is one of the main turning points for teen movies becoming actual mirrors of life in high school and, in a sense, more enjoyably nostalgic.

2010s – 21 Jump Street, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Project X

As we enter the tentatively-named ‘twenty-tens’ we see the theme of popularity and sex remaining, but also becoming more important. 21 Jump Street had a strong focus on popularity and how, over time, the things that interest teenagers and the trends that happen change drastically. As Channing Tatum wanders through the school car park, he can hardly recognise the world he used to rule seven years beforehand. His fool proof popularity is no longer cool and gets him resented by the new, eco-friendly cool kids.

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On the other side of the coin are films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower which deal with the other teens in high school, the ones who don’t get exciting, glamorous films about them. Perks focuses not on the massive social groups of high school and partying, but the loneliness that can come about from being ‘different’. The important of true friendship becomes a large theme in this movie, one that is commonly thrown aside in the past, replaced with sex, drugs and popularity (see Project X, if you have to). Even in Grease it is only at the end that they sing that they’ll ‘always be together’ thanks to the great friendships they’ve forced throughout their high school career.

Let’s pretend this is an three-sided coin and we’ve flipped to the third side, just to keep this metaphor rolling. Here we have Project X, unlike either 21 Jump Street or Perks in the sense that the film doesn’t have a moral or a message to the audience. Project X is, in a sense, an examination of teen party culture. Thinking back upon watching the film all I can remember is that it had quite a good soundtrack, and Martin Klebba was stuck in the oven. The worst parts of Project X are the glorification of drug and alcohol excess, the misogynistic attitude towards women (let’s not get started on the one-dimensional characters of this film), and the ability of these teenagers to get away with destroying their entire neighbourhood because they ‘wanted to be popular’. Okay, you can have fun when you’re in high school, but don’t set fire to cars with a flamethrower, or make friends with dealers who do.

So what does the future of high school movies hold? Well, let’s hope more-21 Jump Street and less-Project X. And definitely no Breakfast Club remake.

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