Whether you loved it or loathed it, your school experience will have likely helped shape the person you are today. From forming life long friendships and getting into trouble during those endless summers to enduring early teenage heartaches, those years in the education system are often so formative.
And while we may not want to relive those moments ourselves, sometimes it can be fun or even cathartic to watch other people live out their puberty-ridden, toe-curlingly embarrassing high school experiences. Whether it’s a painfully relatable pursuit of the sesh (Superbad) or revelling in the pure escapism of bullies getting their comeuppance (Carrie), there’s a bounty of classic coming-of-age films out there to enjoy.
With school now out for summer, NME has taken a closer look at some of the best films to have ever been made about those teenage years.
Has Bo Burnham made the first coming-of-age film that actually understands the internet? The comedian’s directorial debut Eighth Grade focuses on a painfully awkward teenage girl, whose fears and desires are communicated through YouTube vlogs that no one watches, just trying to survive one school year. Everyday anxieties are given epic, dramatic care as a pool party is filmed like a horror movie and this one unbelievably normal girl is written and directed to feel like the coolest girl in the world. As excruciating as it is heartwarming, Eighth Grade raises the bar for a new wave of teen movies that are being made for a new wave of teens living online.
Adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s 1980 novel of the same name, Submarine centres around a single milestone in 15-year-old angst-ridden protagonist Oliver Tate’s (an exemplary Craig Thomas) coming-of-age experience: losing his virginity. A widescreen, sensitive ode to adolescence that succeeds in illuminating the endlessly complicated feelings that accompany puppy love, Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut is a gloriously funny (and often painfully squirm-worthy) watch. Rooted in timeless nostalgia, the veracity of Alex Turner’s songwriting on the sweetly dark, hyper-romantic soundtrack tenderly buoys things along and works as a supplementary narrator to Tate, detailing his spirited teenage narcissism with an orchestral swell. An indie classic for the ages.
Lady Bird (2017)
Much has been said about the very real, raw and resonating portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, but Lady Bird‘s depiction of high school life – and that strange state that we call our teenage years – is just as accurate too. Who among us didn’t have that overwhelming urge to escape their place we’re from? Or feel like every instance of social embarrassment would be remembered for a lifetime? Or ask our parents to refer to us by a ridiculous new name? Some of us even dressed only in black to performatively read stuffy literature in public. They were simpler times.
Luke Morgan Britton
“If you have a taste for terror, you have a date with Carrie.” So claimed the original trailer to Brian De Palma’s hysterical horror flick, both a giddy parody of the high school movie and a par excellence example of the genre. Well, it’s the only date that 16-year-old Carrie (a magnetic Sissy Spacek) was likely to get: a misfit with a religious fanatic mother (Piper Laurie), she’s an object of ridicule among her cruel classmates. Reader: they get their comeuppance. Horror maestro Stephen King, who wrote the original novel, blessed Carrie with telekinetic powers – as bad lad Billy Nolan (John Travolta) and his detestable chums soon discover. At once camp and creepy, Carrie is a high-trash masterpiece.
How did you spend the last day of secondary school? There’s a spot of shirt-signing, an hour or so of existential dread, a few pleasantries paid to the cool Media teacher and then, crucially, the piss-up. Well at least the pursuit of one, anyway. No film captures the final days of school and the desperation to get ‘fucked up’ quite like Superbad. Its hapless trio, Seth (Jonah Hill), Evan (Michael Cera) and McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), go on a calamitous chase of the final high-school blowout they’ve dreamed about for years. They scrounge for booze, get caught in the middle of a liquor-store stick-up and get the whole party – when they finally turn up – shut down by the cops. Calamitous, crude and, in places, surprisingly heartwarming.
Easy A (2010)
For many of us, we felt fairly anonymous while at school. That was certainly the case for Easy A‘s Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) – that is until a lie about losing her virginity to a college boy gets out of control, and suddenly her personal life is at the centre of Ojai North High School’s latest scandal. Turning usual schmaltzy rom-com tropes on their head, Easy A is a riot. Stone is a treat every moment she’s on screen, delivering killer one-liners with deliciously wry wit, Olive’s parents Dill and Rosemary (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) are in contention for some of the best ever on-screen parenting, and love-interest “Woodchuck” Todd (Penn Badgley) is pleasingly straightforward. Refreshing, laugh-out loud funny and filled with characters you wish you knew, it’s the high school film you didn’t know you needed.
In decades to come, Booksmart should be rightly regarded as the first film to perfectly capture the very essence of Gen Z on the big screen. Olivia Wilde’s whip-smart comedy sees Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kathryn Dever) on a quest to prove they’re both “smart and fun” before leaving for college – a scenario that immediately resonates with any high school underling. But it’s to Wilde’s credit that this simplest of premises transforms into something much greater. While often hilarious, it’s a refreshingly thoughtful and feminist take on what it’s really like to navigate the tricky world of adolescence. Bolstered by the unbreakable chemistry between Feldstein and Dwyer, it’s a pioneering classic of the high school genre – and the most modern take on the genre to date.
Want a little more bite in your coming-of-age movie than frat parties and awkward romances? Then sink your teeth into Lindsay Anderson’s cult classic If… Released in 1968 amidst a wave of counterculture, If… sees Malcolm McDowell (of A Clockwork Orange fame) play Mick Travis – a rebel not meant for the English Public School system. Tired of the caning, the out-of-date traditions, the hierarchy and the ritual humiliation, Travis and his friends kick back against authority in this stylish and zeitgeist capturing masterpiece. It’s a rallying cry for freedom and, in the words of the headmaster himself, “a powerhouse of ideas, experiments, imagination”.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
The ’80s gave us a plethora of great coming-of-age movies to choose from, but Fast Times At Ridgemont High stands out as the undisputed gem of them all. Written by Cameron Crowe as the result of his undercover research at a real-life San Diego high school, it stands up today thanks to its progressive realism, teaching important lessons of consent and reproductive autonomy without glossing over the lighter moments of the adolescent experience. You can keep your Breakfast Clubs and Pretty In Pinks – we’d rather be drinking our milkshakes at the Ridgemont Mall.
Bring It On! (2000)
Every girl wanted to be a cheerleader at some point in their life – isn’t that a given? And when Bring It On! came on, you got to indulge in the dream and watch those popular girls basically tear each other apart in the name of competition. Mixing boys, social life, and… boys, this high school film showed that your teenage years are nothing without a little friendship and team spirit. Touching on real issues between the cringe, Bring It On! wasn’t afraid to touch on race and plagiarism – remember the infamous cheer-off between the Toros and their thieving victims, The Clovers? This skilled plot line sprinkled some reality over the ultimate cheerleading fantasy, showing us that although these near-perfect social queens are a little absurd, actually, they’re just like us.