High School Dayze
This week we are going to Flashback-Friday it back... way back to when you were in high school. For some of us that was more recent than others, but for all of us high school holds a significant place in our memories—for good or ill, happy or cringe-worthy, our high school days played a definitive role in shaping our individual self-perceptions.
Some may assume that filmmakers target high-school-aged audiences when making a film set in high school. But this assumption disregards the prime emotion catered to in those films: nostalgia. People watch high school films because they either want perspective on their current state of affairs, or because they are still processing what the heck happened to them during those four years they had little choice participating in.
The biggest theme found in high school films, and consequently the reason behind this genre’s popularity, is the theme of tribe. Many, if not all, of high school films ask the questions “what are the tribes?” and “which one am I in?” By tribe I mean what you would assume: the group, clique, family or type that embraces you as one of their kind. This is one of the greatest concerns of high-school-aged people, and it continues to be a concern long after they have turned their 99¢ tassel.
Before the concept of high school even existed, humans felt the need to identify with a tribe—be it a literal tribe, religion, culture or sect. The reason it's so easy to identify yourself in high school, however, is that it creates a microcosm for the rest of world. It breaks down the power structures and social tensions that have and will always exist outside of compulsory schooling into small, easy-to-analyze pieces.
As a genre, this is unashamedly my favorite, for the reason explained above. Each decade has its own expression of tribalism and power structure, but here are a few films from the 1970s onward to look for in particular. (The films marked with an asterisk are available on Netflix, though some are the modern adaptations.)
"Grease"*, "The Last Picture Show" and "Carrie"*
This decade, perhaps unsurprisingly, shows a lot of regret for the things lost in the passage of years between the 1950s and 1970s—and, honestly, a lot had changed in only twenty years. Both "Grease" and "The Last Picture Show" are retrospectives of the 1950s, used as lenses through which to better see and understand the very different social structures of the 1970s. "Grease" is far more bubble-gum happy, but does an excellent job depicting the still present issues of sex, popularity and feeling like an outsider.
"Karate Kid"*, "Footloose"*, "Heathers"*, "Dirty Dancing"* and "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off"*
The 1980s may be most famous for its films set in high school—I mean, just look at that line up. Some might argue that "Karate Kid" is about karate... but they would be wrong! Though karate is central, the actual issue being discussed is, as per usual, what it is like to be a new kid at school that nobody really likes. Good thing Daniel San was able to find a tacit handyman to keep him company and illegally slip him some sake on the side.
Like "Karate Kid," the movies "Footloose," "Heathers," and "Dirty Dancing" also focus on what it is like being an outsider. Only "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" manages to focus on the other end of the spectrum—what it is like being the most popular guy at school. No one, not even audience members, can resist loving the amiable and clever Ferris (except for, of course, his perhaps under-appreciated sister or weirdly obsessive principle). It is likely that the protagonist being the most popular person in school is unusual for a reason; more often than not, the people both making and watching the film were not in that 1 percent, and so were less likely to connect or want to hear that minority’s story—we like to see ourselves on screen as often as possible.
"Clueless"*, "Freaks and Geeks"*, "American Beauty"* and "Rushmore"
Two words: "Freaks and Geeks." My favorite TV show of all time, this one-season series will rip your heart out in the best possible way. Set in the 1980s, this movie represents nostalgia on a whole new level, as it portrays the struggle three generations encounter as they try to meet each other on some level of understanding. Lindsay and Sam’s parents, in particular, are fascinating to observe as they depict the confusion of trying to understand high school in the 1980s with only experience from the 1950s to work with. In some ways nothing has changed, but in other ways it is a whole new world. Similarly, guidance councilor Mr. Rosso has to stifle his disappointment as he attempts to communicate with the disenchanted 1980s generation with the always hopeful drumbeats of the 1970s peace movement pounding in the back of his head.
"Brick," "The Trotsky," "Mean Girls"*, "The Virgin Suicides"* and "Gossip Girl"*
Mean Girls: why do you like it? Why do you hate it? Because guess what—if you attend King’s currently, that means that this was essentially the decade of your high school experience (or pretty dang close). It, like so many of the films before it, depicts the plight of an outsider. Were you that outsider? (Perhaps you attempted the transition from homeschool to public school... and God bless you if you did). Or did you sit at one of those tables Janice describes when she and Damien explain the power structure of their a-typical high school? Or, glory of glories, perhaps you were a plastic. And if you were? Well good for you. Somebody has to maintain the hierarchy.