Cinematary Canon #6: Back-to-School Films
By Andrew Swafford, Lydia Creech, Ashley Baker, Nathan Smith, Zach Dennis, Andrea Asauje and Ben Shull.
Note: These films are not ranked by quality, but rather in chronological order.
The 400 Blows (1959) by François Truffaut
This autobiographical debut film by French New Wave director François Truffaut has become one of the most quintessential works of the movement, and is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. It follows Antoine Doinel, a character who became so beloved by viewers after the film’s release that Truffaut made four more movies to continue his story, which Jean-Pierre Léaud also starred in. Doinel is a rebellious adolescent who has troubles with his parents, schoolteachers, and other figures of authority. He cuts class often, but as a result finds it does him more trouble than good.
This is not a typical back-to-school film because the film spends most of its time outside the school setting. School is an important piece of this film—it’s a protection for Antoine and an institution his parents trust, but he spends more time cutting class than behind his desk. It’s arguable that this choice causes a domino effect, leading the film, and Antoine, in a new direction by the end.
This if your movie if you’re looking for a pensive film with major significance in film history. - Ashley Baker
The Trouble with Angels (1966) by Ida Lupino
The beginning of the school year is all about conformity and conflict. After lazing the summer away with no obligations, students are immediately met with authority figures who have high demands, strict regulations, and consequences for those who defy the rigid structure. Anyone who has ever been curious as to why teenagers are so rebellious have only to look as far as the nearest high-school, where everything from hugging to bathroom use is micromanaged to ensure stability of the learning environment.
Set in an all-girls Catholic boarding school, Ida Lupino’s The Trouble With Angels charmingly captures harmless teenage maladjustment to good-intentioned authoritarianism. His Girl Friday’s Rosalind Russell plays a steely Mother Superior opposite the stir-crazy antics of June Harding and Hayley Mills as they grow into themselves and toward each other throughout the girls’ entire high-school education. The film is relatively low-tension, operating on a Brady Bunch-level of good-natured episodic amusement for its 2-hour runtime, but director Ida Lupino and screenwriter Blanche Hanalis imbue the school’s mundane happenings and stock characters with a lot of heart, and neither side of the student-teacher dichotomy is demonized.
One could easily see this film going in an also-interesting-but-far-different direction about the Catholic policing of young girls’ bodies--considering Lupino was one of Golden Age Hollywood’s only woman auteurs--but Lupino chooses not to focus her film on power run amok. Instead, she focuses on humanity within the system, and The Trouble With Angels portrays the student-teacher relationship as a natural process of rebellion and reconciliation. Students almost need to hate teachers at first as an instinct of self-preservation. Concerned for their own autonomy, rebellious students see teachers merely as symbols of authority rather than human beings who truly wish to serve as mentors. The Trouble With Angels beautifully demonstrates that the disdain can’t last. With time and maturity comes the ability to see past such notions, and the end of the school year becomes a melancholy loss of former tyrants. - Andrew Swafford
High School (1968) by Frederick Wiseman
Sometimes I have nightmares where I wake up back in high school. The past five years never happened; I never got my degree or made my wonderful cine-friends or studied abroad or had any of experiences that have helped me grow and learn as a person. And, the worst part about being a teenager again, the mind-numbingly boring way your life is regimented and controlled by the school system, is perfectly captured in my pick for Cinematary’s Back-to-School Canon list: Fredrick Wiseman’s High School.
As the only non-fiction (ish?) documentary on the list, you can say you’re getting into the academic spirit of things and learning something about public high school life in the late 60s. Wiseman filmed for about 8 weeks at the Northeast High School in Philadelphia. His signature documentary style is to shoot vast amounts of raw footage and afterwards assemble a narrative/thematic through line in the editing room. Most of the Wiseman docs that I’ve seen tend to focus on social institutions such as prisons or boot camps (hmmmm, wonder what those have in common with high schools!) and what the life of a place is like, rather than that of particular people. This was the first Wiseman documentary I ever watched, and I think it’s a great introduction without being too harrowing (maybe a little harrowing).
The most amazing thing to me is the way Wiseman’s documentary shows that schools and teenagers and the administration haven’t changed all that much in nearly 50 years. Teenagers are still snot-heads, admins are still petty powerpushers, and sex ed is still awful!!
Maybe it’s just a matter of perspective – Wiseman tells the story of how, after screening High School in a particularly conservative part of the US, a woman came up and ask how their community could also get such “wonderful” schools – which is entirely possible, given the lack of a narrator and the supposed “objectiveness” of the camera’s eye. To me, High School captures everything awful about being a teenager in a public school and it’s a great reminder that it’s past me. Happy Back-to-School! - Lydia Creech
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) by Peter Weir
Weir helped usher in an era of Australian surrealism with this paranoia-laden mystery. Based on an amalgam of urban legends surrounding the unusual geology of Hanging Rock, the story follows an upper-class all-girls boarding school on a field trip to the formation. After disregarding explicit instructions from the headmistress not wander into the towering formation, a teacher allows a few students to explore the rocks. However, only one returns, shrieking as she flees the unknown.
The film does a masterful job of exploring adolescent femininity and masculinity, as well as confronting sexual tension, amidst the context of gender isolation. Obedience to authority also plays a polarizing role in this drama, particularly when it comes to the headmistress’s logistical concerns regarding the college’s reputation as opposed to the well-being of the missing. It is also a remarkable study in cinematic lighting, with the backdrop of the Australian countryside giving way to a rich golden glow beneath the Oceanic sun. The soundtrack features an eerie blend of organ, which swells from mysterious depths, and regional pan-flute, rising as high as the rocks themselves. - Ben Shull
Risky Business (1983) by Paul Brickman
It has long been ventured that prostitution is the oldest proponent of Capitalism. Couple it with Reaganomics and you get one of the greatest films of the 1980’s. Joel, played by Tom Cruise, struggles to live up to his parents’ Ivy League expectations. His time is spent pondering get-rich-quick schemes for his school’s entrepreneurial club and studying for his SATs. But his machismo is challenged on sexual grounds. His striving to be a businessman has come in the way of his socio-sexual prowess.
The solution, of course, is to hire a prostitute from the back pages of a smut magazine. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase between two paths: monetary success or adherence to familial/social expectation. Also, Tangerine Dream provides an exciting soundtrack of pulsating, rhythmic synthesizer and cosmic arpeggios, establishing them as one of the premier soundtrack scorers of the 1980’s.
This is the film Tom Cruise should be known for. In fact, he never should have done another film ever again. - Ben Shull
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) by Louis Malle
Although the title of this film—which translates to “Goodbye, Children”—seems incredibly depressing, this is a thoughtful coming of age story by Louis Malle, which is autobiographical of events that occurred while he was an adolescent attending boarding school in occupied France during WWII. The film picks up when Julien Quentin, the protagonist, arrives back to school along with his other classmates. Quentin is popular among the boys because he shares erotic poetry and stories given to him by his older brother. The main plot, however, surrounds Quentin forming an unlikely friendship with the awkward new boy, Jean Bonnet, as they discover secrets about each other and learn to trust one another with them.
This film is unlike most back-to-school or coming of age films because it is set under the umbrella of Nazi occupation and an ever-looming fear of Holocaust. Despite this, there are fun sequences, like a scene where the boys watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant with live accompaniment. The cinematography is reserved, yet beautiful. This film is thick with tension and suspenseful plot, but there are still moments left for the audience to sit with the silent Julien Quentin and wonder what he is wondering.
If you want a deeper, sweeter back-to-school film, this one is sure to please. - Ashley Baker
Rushmore (1998) by Wes Anderson
Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is a kid that we all knew in school. He is pompous to the point of self parody, prolific enough that it borders on dictatorial and unrelentingly self-confident. While most schools may not have had students that embodied all of these qualities, Max wears them with the same pride as a military badge.
Wes Anderson’s second feature feels much more in his “style” than his first foray, Bottle Rocket, but continues his ability to highlight the absurdity and heart of characters you're familiar with in reality. We love Max because while he carries those frustrating personality traits mentioned before, at his core, he is just a teenager looking to set sail in life — confused as to what is required to make that step.
In this way, Max is like the rest of us.
Anderson opens the film with a montage of Max’s accomplishments and organizations to the tune of “Making Time” by The Creation, showing Max’s work as president of the French club, captain of the debate team, and founder of the astronomy society and trap & skeet club among others. As the film moves on — and we learn more about Max’s lack of interest in actual school, his romantic infatuation with one of the school’s teachers (Olivia Williams), a budding friendship with a pair of schoolmates’ sad sack father (Bill Murray) and his eventual downfall at his beloved institution — this idea of Max as this stubborn force unable to give up on the foundations he created speak to us as humans who have also had to let go of elements of the past in order to move forward with our lives.
Rushmore ranks among Anderson’s best work because it tows that line between quirky and in-your-face, and sincere and melancholy. It also hits home as a reminder of our youth and the people who help to define our educational years.
It's just too bad none of them saved Latin. - Zach Dennis
Election (1999) by Alexander Payne
Do ambitious, conniving people ever get their comeuppance? Who gets to decide if – and how -- justice is served? And what happens if the person in question is nothing but a lowly high school student in Omaha, Nebraska?
Election tells the story of high school history teacher Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick, and his quest to exact revenge upon overachiever Tracy Flick, played by Reese Witherspoon. The movie is named after the school’s student government elections, in which Tracy hopes to win the presidency. In order to stop this from happening, Jim recruits injured jock Paul Metzler, played by Chris Klein, to compete against Tracy. Paul’s younger sister, Tammy, also joins in on the twisted election fun, and we’re off to the races in what is possibly the most enjoyable depiction of high school student government elections ever (and yes, I’ve seen Napoleon Dynamite.)
The movie is a dark comedy for the American Pie generation, full of Shakespearean-style plot lines of revenge and vindication mixed up with a dash of deranged humor similar to Heathers. It is awkward and inappropriate and wildly funny. The narration bounces mostly between Jim and Tracy, allowing both Broderick and Witherspoon to savor their respective roles and truly develop the characters, which ultimately leads us, the viewers, to wonder, “Who’s really the victim here, and who’s the villain? And what would I do for my victory and my success?”
And in a political age focused on “winning,” perhaps this movie is more important than ever before. - Andrea Asauje
The School of Rock (2003) by Richard Linklater
Of course, it will always be Cinematary's official position that Richard Linklater's Jack Black vehicle The School of Rock is the greatest back to school movie ever made. Click above to watch Andrew's 2016 video essay on the subject.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) by Jared Hess
It’s strange to recall, 13 years later, the cultural moment of Napoleon Dynamite, an independent film by a young, unknown filmmaker from Idaho that grabbed an unexpected hold on the American consciousness in 2004.
If you were alive then, you might remember that, for a time, “Vote for Pedro” shirts were everywhere, tater tots were in vogue, and “friggin’” was our country’s swear word of choice. In the time since, Jon Heder’s and Jared Hess’ careers have both stalled, a Napoleon Dynamite cartoon has come and gone, and those white shirts with the red iron-on letters hang forgotten in the backs of closets and on the discount racks of thrift stores. Most moved on from Napoleon Dynamite long ago, save for one segment of the population, for which the film represented a rare cinematic moment of accurate representation: Mormons.
For Mormons, Napoleon Dynamite is up there with Mitt Romney, Jeopardy Champion Ken Jennings, and the Osmonds as a folk hero, one who crossed over from the land of the Latter-Day saints to the cultural mainstream. I was raised Mormon in central Texas, a Midwest-but-not-quite place both different from and similar to the Idaho depicted in Hess’ film. For most non-Mormons, Napoleon Dynamite is yet another entry in the post-Wes Anderson “quirky” movie boom but for me, it’s uncannily familiar, with accurate details that recall the milieu I came of age in.
The casseroles, the references to Boy Scouts, the “modest is hottest” fashion sensibility, the perpetually outdated style, and the utter indifference to pop culture are all hallmarks of Mormon culture. To outsiders, Napoleon Dynamite might seem blandly universal, but to me, its specificity comes from a lack of specificity, or at least of direct reference points, a quality that could only come from a religion that encourages its followers to look past cultural ephemera and keep their eyes on heaven. As New Yorker critic Richard Brody has identified, Napoleon Dynamite exists squarely in the Mormon religious tradition, one that’s almost hermetically sealed to the outside world, cloistered from all culture that isn’t squeaky clean. You commonly hear Mormons describe themselves as “in the world but not of the world,” which stems from a belief that men and the world they possess are inherently steeped in sin. Napoleon Dynamite reflects this sensibility; sure, there are Backstreet Boys, Jamiroquai, and Alphaville songs, but they function more as set dressing than knowing music cues.
Napoleon Dynamite takes place in the mid-2000s but seems more comfortable presenting itself as an artifact from some marginal space between the 1980s and 1990s; it’s vision of the largely Mormon state of Idaho is as a non-specific Zion unstuck from the confines of time, a place where America’s religious weirdos are the majority. Even then, Napoleon Dynamite appealed to me even more than it did most Mormons because it reflects what it feels like to be an outsider to a culture that prides itself on existing outside mainstream American culture. Napoleon’s high school nemeses aren’t the cool kids; they’re probably cornier than he is, with their starched polo shirts and perpetually spiked hair.
Jared Hess is like Wes Anderson for the flyover states, or perhaps more accurately the Mormon Hal Hartley; beneath the deadpan framing, offbeat humor, and fascination with thrift store flotsam is a beating heart, one that feels for outsiders of all stripes, especially those alienated even further from a culture of outsiders. - Nathan Smith
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) by Mike Leigh
A good teacher never stops being a student--but they never stop being a teacher, either.
Happy-Go-Lucky stars the one and only Sally Hawkins as an eternally optimistic kindergarten teacher (the role she was born to play, really), but it doesn’t spend much time in the classroom. Instead, Mike Leigh’s film shows a truly multifaceted educator: one who moves between many spaces, always learning and always teaching. When we do see her in her classroom, she’s leading a wild rumpus-type activity meant to make the concept of animal migration memorable--but the film elevates itself as a school-movie when it leaves the building, and we see her take driving lessons and flamenco classes from instructors with profoundly different teaching styles.
Sally Hawkins’s class is borderline anarchic in its sense of freedom and joy. Her driving instructor (an unhinged Eddie Marsan), however, is an old-school authoritarian, shouting and demanding and drilling mnemonic devices into her unwilling ears--all-too-often letting his anger getting the best of him (at times revealing his own prejudiced rage towards society) when demanding respect. The flamenco teacher, on the other hand, is a teacher-as-performer, channeling her passion for the subject into a larger-than-life teaching persona that makes falling in love with her class easy--until it burns her out, and she can’t separate her personal emotions from the ones she’s putting on for class. None of these styles are necessarily held up as “good”--they’re just case studies in how (people think) we learn.
Hawkins is always teaching, though. She teaches in her faces and her mannerisms, her rapid-fire quips and her constant giggling--and, crucially, her understanding of when a situation is gravely serious, too. Her ability to read people and make every interaction engaging and lively and meaningful is more inspiring than any superpower. She models optimism and kindness in everything she does. This, too, is what we need teachers for. - Andrew Swafford