The coming of age genre is wildly popular in the United States. We can trace the lineage of the genre back to films like “Rebel Without a Cause,” “American Graffiti,” and even “Grease.” However, the bildungsroman genre wasn’t a true cultural phenomenon until the John Hughes era of the 1980s. Hughes was the mastermind behind the high school archetypes, i.e. the jock, the nerd, the bully etc. He pioneered adolescence as a dramatic device, and has been ripped off consistently for the last 20 years.
But one of the great things about the genre is its malleability. High school is a reflection of a generation and its culture, filtering out its residents every four years (five if you’re Fred O’Bannion). It enables the same stories to be reproduced year after year, yet remain interesting because of their contrasting characters.
The below list represents the five high school films that, in my opinion, still stand the test of time. They aren’t ordered from best to worst, because quite frankly they’re all fantastic.
- “Lady Bird” Greta Gerwig
If I could include “Lady Bird” on all my lists, I would. The 2016 film starring Saoirse Ronan as a Sacramento senior is character development at its finest. Gerwig’s fresh, hilarious dialogue lends itself to the sardonic outlook carried by Lady Bird throughout the film. However, the film’s heart comes from Lady Bird and her mother’s relationship. Mama. Lady Bird, played by Laurie Metcalf, reflects all our mothers with a controlling presence that inevitably comes from a place of love. “Lady Bird” is emotional, funny, and relatable to anyone who endured Catholic school.
2. “Superbad” Greg Mottola
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote “Superbad” when they were 17, and it remains the corner stone for high school comedies. Starring Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, the film has more iconic lines than just about any comedy in the last 20 years. It also spawned McLovin, whose fake ID is still the most famous piece of identification in film history.
3. “Dazed and Confused” Richard Linklater
“Dazed and Confused” is a period piece done right. The 1993 film transports audiences to the last day of high school in 1976 and invites us to smoke a joint and ride along with some of the coolest high schoolers of all time. Linklater is the master of realism, and “Dazed” strives for nothing more than cultural accuracy. It also spring-boarded the career of Matthew McConaughey, whose iconic “Alright, alright, alright” was first heard in the streets of “Dazed.”
4. “Mean Girls” Mark Waters
“Mean Girls” is the feminine inverse to “Superbad.” Penned by Tina Fey, the film hilariously spoofs the archetypal tropes of high school movies and delivers a quintessential villain in Rachel McAdams’ Regina George. Like “Superbad,” “Mean Girls” is filled with culturally significant scenes that completely changed the vernacular of a generation. If you haven’t seen “Mean Girls” yet, I question how you’ve been spending your time.
5. “The Breakfast Club” John Hughes
It wouldn’t be a coming of age list without a John Hughes movie, and “The Breakfast Club” is certainly his magnum opus. Featuring actors hailing from the historic “Brat Pack,” “The Breakfast Club” remains the most cathartic Saturday detention to date and has one of the more gut-wrenching scenes in all of film. And although the story may be problematic by today’s standards, “The Breakfast Club” is still worth a watch considering the impact it had on coming of age movies. Check out Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, and Judd Nelson behind the scenes of “The Breakfast Club” in the above picture.