10 Great Back to School Films
Written by Brooke Forrest on September 4, 2017
We are officially in the back to school season. This means that it is once again time for learning and responsibility – plus tons of excellent good times, right? Well, in case you need help to prepare for a new school year, here are ten films to get you back in the school spirit.
Back to School (1986) dir. Alan Metter
So this is an obvious one, but it feels like a necessary addition beyond even the perfect name and theme. This classic eighties comedy centers around eccentric and wealthy businessman Thornton Melon, played by the excellent Rodney Dangerfield. Thornton goes back to school in order to encourage his college-student son (Keith Gordon) to not drop out. Despite being much older and less educated than his classmates, Thornton finds himself fitting right in due to a helpful combination of wealth and charisma. But Thornton’s constant partying and poor academic performance cause him to have to fight for his right to stay in school. Back to School is an entertaining and goofy college comedy with an impressive cast, including Robert Downey Jr., Sam Kinison, Ned Beatty and cameos by Kurt Vonnegut and Danny Elfman. Triple Lindy Dive your way into a new school year with the gusto of an aging but outgoing millionaire.
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) dir. Richard Linklater
In the so-called spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater takes us on a back-to-school nostalgia journey. Based partly on his own college experience as a baseball player, we witness the first weekend at school for a new college freshman in the 1980s. With a title taken from a Van Halen song that actually includes not one but two exclamation points, you know this is a film that isn’t taking itself too seriously, yet it’s also kind of surprisingly deep and gives the perfect introduction to college. The whole film is a ridiculously good time showing all the random and unusual adventures that take place in college, and all the different types of people you end up spending time with. It even touches on some of the unfortunate realities of dealing with new peers and responsibilities. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it has a truly killer eighties soundtrack. If Dazed and Confused is the film that gets you in the school’s-out-for-summer mood, then Everybody Wants Some somehow actually makes you want to go back.
The Breakfast Club (1985) dir. John Hughes
Few films do a better job of embodying the teen experience than the iconic brat pack hit The Breakfast Club. In this John Hughes classic, we observe a rather unique day of high school detention, where we have representatives from just about every clique including a jock (Emilio Estevez), nerd (Anthony Michael Hall), burnout (Judd Nelson), outcast (Ally Sheedy), and popular girl (Molly Ringwald). Over the course of the day their differences start to fall away as they begin to bond over humorous experiences and dramatic revelations. Hughes was exceptionally skilled at thoughtfully showing teenagers and coming-of-age experiences with respect and honesty. The Breakfast Club is arguably the best example of this; the film contains plenty of amusing moments and dialogue, but it ultimately leaves you with some helpful lessons about the high school experience and growing up.
Legally Blonde (2001) dir. Robert Luketic
There’s nothing like Elle Wood’s quest for greatness to get you prepared for another year of school. Sure, at first glance the film seems like a silly gimmick — perky blonde sorority girl goes to Harvard — but once you realize that Elle Woods is an impressive force you can’t deny that her story is both entertaining and inspirational. After being unexpectedly dumped, Elle sets out on a quest to win back her boyfriend by going to Harvard Law School. But once she succeeds at getting in she finds herself facing new challenges and goals. Elle was able to turn a disappointment in her life into a chance to go out and work hard to get what she wanted. She continually defied the odds and people’s expectations for her, achieving success and gaining unexpected new friends and experiences while unapologetically being different by being herself. Legally Blonde is a great back-to-school watch to inspire you to go out and have not only excellent new school year but to own your whole time in college.
Billy Madison (1995) dir. Tamra Davis
This one takes the meaning of the phrase ‘back to school’ literally when slacker rich kid, Billy Madison, must redo and pass every grade of school in just a few weeks in order to earn back his place in his family business. This ridiculous and goofy film is from the era of Adam Sandler films that many people actually liked — it has all the raunchy and childish charm of Sandler’s humor put into an absurdly fitting premise. Billy’s trip through every grade of school results in numerous memorable scenes and highly quotable moments. The film also contains tons of terrific comedians and actors like Chris Farley, Norm Macdonald, Steve Buscemi, and Bradley Whitford. Plus, Billy Madison is a great reminder that going back to school can help prove to your parents that you are in fact, not a fool.
Dead Poets Society (1989) dir. Peter Weir
This beloved and inspirational film follows a group of students at a prep school embarking on a new school year. Things are different this year — among the normal male bonding and advanced learning, a new professor shakes things up at their rather strict and traditional school. Robin Williams is of course perfect as the highly motivational and inspiring professor, John Keating. Williams’s character actually makes the pursuit of knowledge feel exciting and possible as he motivates the students to care deeply about life and education. The film has become a bit of a cliche in the ‘school’ genre, resulting in plenty of “O Captain, My captain” jokes, and at times it feels a bit too mushy in its message. However, it’s hard to fully hate something with such a terrific ensemble cast and something that has so blatantly inspired people to actually like learning and the classroom.
Mistress America (2015) dir. Noah Baumbach
In Mistress America, Tracy is a freshman having a very disappointing start to her college life in New York City. The film perfectly portrays the harsh reality of what college can be like. While many films opt to show it as this perfect new home that you fit right into, Mistress America chooses to express the possible loneliness and isolation that can come from being in a new place. Tracy doesn’t seem to fit in no matter how hard she tries, from her roommate inexplicably hating her to struggling to be a part of an exclusive campus organization she finds herself feeling like everyone knows what they are doing but her. Even after she finds a new friend, he quickly ends up dating someone else, leaving her alone again. But when Tracy meets her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke, she feels like she may have finally found some excitement and acceptance. Through her new relationships and a series of bizarre but highly entertaining adventures Tracy starts to come into her own, but that also leads to some unexpected consequences. Mistress America is not only a witty and honest look at trying to adjust to college life but it also realistically portrays the sometimes aimless confusion you can have all through your twenties and thirties. Watch this back to school film to remember that you are not alone if you haven’t quite found your place yet.
Rushmore (1998) dir. Wes Anderson
Max Fisher’s school, Rushmore, means everything to him. He is a part of just about every group imaginable and prides himself on being a great leader and achiever — the only problem is he is actually a terrible student. In the midst of being eccentric in just about every way imaginable, Max brings his efforts to new levels with some rather unusual new friends and plots. Rushmore is a supurb example of Wes Anderson filmmaking, with his frequent actor collaborators at their best and a truly epic soundtrack. Max has many common school-age experiences, like falling in love for the first time and making new friends. The only problem is that his crush is on a 30-year-old teacher and his new friend is the wealthy father of his classmates. Sure, Max is unusual, but while his adventures are farfetched and sometimes ill-advised, his constant ambition, drive, and adventures are admirable goals for youth and schooling. Watch Rushmore and get inspired to get involved and live life as eccentrically as you want — maybe just save some time for studying too.
The Spectacular Now (2013) dir. James Ponsoldt
The Spectacular Now plays very much like an ultra-cliche high school movie, complete with the college application story structure, but what stands out is how remarkable the acting is from the whole cast. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley shine as the leads; he is the poster-boy for the popular party guy in high school and she is perfect as the very sweet girl next door. They are both wonderfully elevated by a phenomenal supporting cast including Brie Larson, Bob Odenkirk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Kyle Chandler. All these characters help create a very real feeling world of high school and coming of age. Things are not perfect, in fact, they are very flawed, and the painful naivety of Teller and Woodley throughout the whole film can feel almost uncomfortably real. There is something really effective about seeing high school through the eyes of someone who actually loves high school. It is both a very exciting and instantly nostalgic experience that can also feel profoundly sad and sympathetic. This could very well be the best time of this person’s life, especially if they allow it to be, for better or worse. It is exactly the kind of movie you should watch for all the lessons of what can be wonderful about high school and why you need to move on from it.
Animal House (1979) dir. John Landis
In this cult classic, we are introduced to the wild and raucous fraternity Delta Tau Chi by following the start of the college for two new pledges. Sure, Animal House isn’t the most school heavy college film, but it does do a great job of showing the other side to your college education — the potential for great fun, amazing parties, and excellent friendships. It doesn’t hurt that the film has a spectacular soundtrack including a very memorable version of “Shout”. The shenanigans of every frat member result in numerous memorable moments and ill-advised activities that would almost certainly get you arrested in real life. Luckily, Animal House has mostly just spawned lots of toga parties and frequently quoted lines. The original greek god of all frat movies, Animal Houses Delta’s actually feels like a group you wanna hangout with. Plus, if you are gonna have that John Belushi ‘College’ poster on your wall, you should at least watch Animal House first.