It’s been years since I’ve had to brownbag it, yellow-bus it or red-face it through a school day. The gym rope can’t hurt me now. Still every year, the back-to-school ads perform such a Stephen King on my spine that I change the channel faster than I do when blitzed by one of those Sarah MacLachlan animal-abuse commercials. The only antidote that I’ve found is to face up to the bully and immerse myself in a good back-to-school movie.
These are my favorite screenplays of the genre—if you can call it that (Can you, Miss Erlicher? Can you?)—because they turn our memories and our “if-onlys” on their heads:
1. BACK TO SCHOOL—Written by Rodney Dangerfield, Greg Fields, Steven Kampman, Will Porter, Peter Torokvei and Harold Ramis with story by Dangerfield, Fields and Dennis Snee—Since I’m the only writer without a credit on this 1986 hit, it seems to defy accepted wisdom that comedy-by-committee yields disaster. Just the opposite, the goofy plot of a successful businessman who bonds with his son by sharing a dorm room, captures Dangerfields’s stand-up persona with rule-breaking abandon as he buys the respect he deserves. Generously jammed with one-liners and wordplay (ranging from bad puns to exquisite vulgarity), a sweet story and the essential third-act triumph, Back to School puts Dangerfield at the head of the class.
2. THE BREAKFAST CLUB—Written by John Hughes—A phrase in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Inception resonates as an apt description of Hughes’s high-school classics from the 1980s: “a half-remembered dream.” The Breakfast Club, which follows a group of students into a Saturday-morning detention hall that approximates how we think we remember high school, populated with archetypes, sticks-and-stones humor and end-of-innocence revelations. The representatives of each high school clique enter as strangers, identify with each other through common suffering, and then exit again as strangers. Hughes, perhaps more than anyone else ever, is credited with having an ear for the way high-schoolers spoke—but there’s a bit of chicken-and-egg going on as he more likely influenced the lexicon more than he imitated it. (See also Sixteen Candles)
3. FAME—Written by Christopher Gore—Kids think as adults; adults act as loons, but it feels appropriate in a school designed for the preternaturally precocious. It’s that rare latter-day musical that actually has songs that can stand alone as radio hits, and they are performed by a cast that should have lasted longer (Irene Cara, I thought you’d live forever). The melodrama of the interweaving vignettes of the not-quite-friends who meet at New York’s School for the Performing Arts ranges from After-School (not-all-that) Special to wickedly wise. No one’s school was ever this much fun, or troubled.
4. ELECTION—Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (novel by Tom Perrotta)—Matthew Broderick goes from day-off Ferris to day-in-day-out faculty as a teacher who develops an unhealthy obsession with an ambitious student he fancies as both his affliction and his affection. But it’s the compelling performance, swollen with knowing naivete, by Reese Witherspoon as a lackluster Lolita that makes this dark comedy a special education in all manner of student campaigns.
5. WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE—Written by Todd Solondz—Comedy can’t get much darker than this story of a homely seventh-grader lost and ignored by most everyone except the boy who warns that he intends to rape her (a threat she matter-of-factly accepts as human acknowledgement). Heather Matarazzo gives the bravest, self-denying performance a young actress can proffer as writer/director Solondz indicts schools, parents and growing up through her Coke-bottles.
6. 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU—Written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith—The title kinda-sorta rhymes with The Taming of the Shrew, and the film kinda-sorta transports Shakespeare’s comedy to a modern-day high school with Heath Ledger cast as the rogue rallied to woo Julia Stiles as an outcast brainiac with an overprotective father. Even when it verges on the absurd, it presents a misty-watercolor-memory of high school.
7. ANIMAL HOUSE—Written by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller—In one performance, John Belushi transformed himself from TV to movie star in this raunchy comedy about the worst frat house on campus. It raised or lowered the bar (depending on your perspective) on all campus comedies in its wake and made possible the good, bad and ugly of Will Farrell (depending on your perspective). The antics of the frat brothers and their pledges as they battle Dean Wormer (John Vernon), who has placed them on “double secret probation,” include hitting on a coed whose roommate just died and literally crashing a parade. And who can forget Belushi’s impersonation of every back-to-schooler’s nemesis: a zit?
8. BLACKBOARD JUNGLE—Written by Richard Brooks (novel by Evan Hunter)—The grand-daddy of too many misbegotten movies in which a white teacher rescues an inner-city school, this prescient 1955 drama captures the fears of a racist era and the communication gap between generations and ethnicities. Glenn Ford stands and delivers and the man who civilizes a misunderstood Sidney Poitier.
9. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN—Written by Steve Kloves (novel by J.K. Rowling)—The young wizards return to school in the best of the series (until this year’s finale). The true magic of the books and the movies is that their tone and style matured as their admirers grew along with them, and everyone hits their stride in this installment that introduces convicted murdered Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) to complicate the simple morality tale. It’s also pretty cool for kids to learn that even the magically endowed must drag their robed carcasses to the classroom.
10. MEAN GIRLS—Written by Tina Fey (novel by Rosalind Wiseman)—So many movies (and Heathers can easily be in this place on the list) employ the device of a new student doing battle with the cool clique. Fey’s deft deprecation of self and society elevate this comedy above the motif. Even Lindsay Lohan is likable when Fey puts words in her mouth.
And for extra credit, check out the best movies as told from the teacher’s point of view: The Browning Version, The Prime of Miss Jean Brody andTo Sir W