A-List: Back to School Movies

By J. Don Birnam

September 22, 2016

Man look at those entitled, lazy, self-absorbed millennials, er, Gen X-ers.

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As the days get notably shorter, as the leaves turn notably more orange, as the Oscar prognostication begins, summer turns into fall, vacations end, and kids get back to school. Today, then, let’s take a look at some of the best school-themed movies around.

The criteria is of course fuzzy - a lot of movies feature school or trapezes through their. But let’s talk about movies where school is a central theme, a crucial anxiety, and not just a peripheral jaunt. A movie like Back to the Future is not really about school. A movie like Legally Blonde is, if that makes sense. There really is a lot to work with, even though the theme overlaps a bit with teenage comedies.

We’ve been here before, by the way. When we covered female-driven comedies, somehow we ended up with a list that included a lot of school-themed movies, from Clueless to Mean Girls. We’ve also covered Harry Potter movies themselves, as well as named them the best movie franchises ever, and we’ve even given a shout-out to the quintessential school movie Election in our column about election-themed films. I’ve made it harder on myself by removing those movies from contention, though of course all would be in the top five if eligible. I’m going so far as taking out Dead Poet’s Society, simply because we covered it during our tribute to Robin Williams.

But, don’t worry, there is plenty left in the tank.

5. Back to School (1986)

You didn’t think we’d run the list without the one movie that actually carries the relevant title, did you? In this somewhat wacky comedy, Rodney Dangerfield goes to college when his academically-challenged son shows signs of not doing well in school.

Dangerfield’s character, Thornton Melon, is not the brightest bulb in the shed himself, but he has enough money to buy himself admission into school, to name a building, and to get some passing grades. The comedic journey has him discovering that money doesn’t buy happiness - but neither does education.

Melon is in some way the exultation of the values behind someone, like, say, George W. Bush - populism in failing at school by the main character. It’s okay to get a C in history; you can still be successful, is the point. But it’s done lightheartedly and with Dangerfield’s signature expressions that are chuckle inducing if nothing else.

Along the way, you encounter Robert Downey Jr. in one of his earliest roles. He play’s Dangerfield’s kid’s only friend in school, and is almost unrecognizable face wise but familiar when it comes to comedic timing.

The 1980s, as we shall see, were perhaps the heyday of the school-themed movie.


4. Bring it On (2000)

Well, except when you consider one of the best modern school-themed movies of today, the Kirsten Dunst cheerleading film, Bring it On. Two parts musical, one part time angst story, and one part romantic comedy, the movie tells the story of the captain of her high school cheerleading squad as she is forced to cope with the discovery that the previous captain had been stealing their routines from another high school.

Dunst, with the help of her best friend (Eliza Dushku) has to race against the clock to find new moves in time for the National championships against the hated Clovers. The film is notable for its black vs. white sassy gags, perhaps too un-P.C. to be made today, and for mercilessly exploiting mostly benign stereotypes about teenagers from all races.

It also has a big heart, with Dunst being down to earth despite her privilege and trying to use her family money to foster a spirit of gamesmanship to help her rivals in their time of need. Even better, though, is that the opposing team, led by Gabrielle Union, ends up not needing her. Everyone is able to fend for themselves in that way, and that is actually refreshing for a movie from the year 2000.

It spanned a multitude of sequels, a live musical, and several somewhat obscure but cultish pop culture references. And it did more than that, because movies like Pitch Perfect are obviously derivative of this, the mother of high school competition movies.

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