First off, let's all throw a big middle finger in the air to Walmart for starting their back-to-school sale in late July — way to ruin the mood of summer before it really even kicks in. That's like going to a baby shower and giving a speech about the inevitability of dying alone. Nice work, dickweeds.
Of course, back when I was a little kid, it actually felt like there was a chance we would all perish on the first day of school. It was the tail end of the Cold War and I remember riding the bus wondering if this would be the year the Russians would parachute into our soccer field like they did in Red Dawn. Most of us kids were kind of hoping they would, too, because then we could become vigilantes, call ourselves "The Wolverines" and defeat the commies with a combination of our parents' guns, our local knowledge and our savvy Boy Scout woodland skills. Of course, it never happened (and the 2012 Red Dawn remake sucked), but every time I'm near a school window I look out just in case.
Back to school is really mostly about re-integrating yourself into a devilishly chaotic social caste system while trying to survive the world-shattering crises of being a kid. To celebrate this week's return to the trough, and help navigate the freshly polished hallways of what feels like the best years of your life (but actually mean jack shit in the long run), here are some killer high-school movies.
This one is the best. Christian Slater stars as the loner newcomer in a cliquey school who teams up with cool-kid outcast Winona Ryder to poison, murder and explode their way into the darkest, most subversive high-school flick ever. Shannen Doherty also stars and there's killer '80s fashion throughout. Bonus points if you get a version with the original ending.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Before he wrote-then-directed films, Cameron Crowe was a teen-journalist for Rolling Stone magazine (Almost Famous was based on his real-life work) and Fast Times came out of his time spent undercover studying life in a San Diego high school.
This was THE most popular movie at Pemberton High in the mid-'90s and for good reason. The debut film from director Amy Heckerling delivered the antidote for all the glossy John Hughes pictures of the era. It's not that Pretty In Pink was total dog shit but it really didn't speak to the teens who were clinging to control of whatever they thought life was supposed to be and were far more interested in sex than love. The casting alone makes this one a classic and Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli is one of the best-known icons of the decade.
Over a decade later Amy Heckerling struck high-school gold a second time with a super smart comedy (loosely based on Jane Austin's Emma) about rich, shallow, materialistic Beverly Hills kids and the queen bee who can see life beyond the golden-honey hive. This one also nails its decade and, at the time, showed 1980s yuppies a taste of their own medicine filtered through a half decade of narcissism. Scary stuff. (Tina Fey's Mean Girls did the same for the 2000s.)
The opposite of Clueless (and released the same year) Larry Clark's Kids is a super-naturalistic flick following non-actors through a day in the life of some New York kids just doing their thing, which is mostly talking shit, hanging out, drinking, doing drugs, and spreading AIDS. Kids debuted actresses Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson and scared the shit out of the establishment for its raw, nihilistic reality. This one is worth watching before late September when everyone starts talking about American Honey, which is like a beautifully shot Kids on the road.
On a sadder note, actor Gene Wilder passed away Monday at the age of 83. He never made a high school movie but he brought the perfect amount of quiet craziness to Willy Wonka in the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and had a string of hits with comedic director Mel Brooks (including Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles) and actor/friend Richard Pryor (See No Evil, Hear No Evil is fantastic). Wilder's neurotic style made him popular but his greatest strength lay in his facial expressions and soulful eyes. He could create a humour or mood with a single, subtle movement or glance. They don't make 'em like this anymore. RIP Gene Wilder.