A movie primer for whom the school bell tolls


Parents traditionally rejoice, and students are traditionally glum, and here in Arizona, both are traditionally pleased by the approach, on the distant horizon, of cooler weather. But however you feel about it, back to school time has undeniably arrived.
The back-to-school experience, with its sense of lost freedom and imposed drudgery, and also with its promise of new and exciting experiences, has been the subject of countless movies. Here are a few favorites:

Grease (1978)—This adaptation of the stage musical, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, starts on the first day of school, with the rousing production number “Summer Nights.” I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie, and this has always puzzled and disturbed me, since it’s a rapturous celebration of social conformity, peer pressure, and the behavior of the sort of thuggish jerks that often made high school a lousy experience for me, and a far lousier one for the sorry souls even farther down the dork pecking order than I was.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)—Released just a year after Grease, this lower-budget, pleasingly iconoclastic high school fantasy from director Allan Arkush concerns an autocratic, rock-music-hating new principal (the superb Mary Woronov) trying to stamp out enthusiasm for The Ramones at Vince Lombardi High. P.J. Soles is memorable as the Ramones-obsessed Riff Randell, and so is Clint Howard as the entrepreneurial Eaglebauer.

Animal House (1978)—Back to school, college-style, is the theme of this classic, incalculably influential campus comedy, about the slovenly, lecherous, drunken, prank-playing and hugely self-satisfied denizens of Delta House, a mangy last-resort fraternity at a small Pennsylvania college in 1962, and their persecution by a baleful, fed-up dean and a snobby rival frat. At the center of it all is the grungy, boozy, gluttonous, voyeuristic Bluto, played with a wonderful subtlety and delicacy of facial expression by John Belushi, in the signature role of his brief movie career.

Back to School (1986)—The movie that actually uses our theme as its title is another college romp. This one stars Rodney Dangerfield as a rich guy who enrolls in college to help his son socially. Much partying ensues. The young Robert Downey Jr. had one of his earlier noticeable film roles as the son’s friend, and the late comedian Sam Kinison had one of his few roles as maniacal history teacher.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)—This one isn’t about going back to school; it’s about ditching school. Upper-middle-class kid Ferris (Matthew Broderick) decides he needs a day off, and takes his girlfriend (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) on a spree in Chicago. He’s stalked both the snide Principal (Jeffery Jones) and by his sister (Jennifer Grey), who’s had it with her brother’s popularity. Charlie Sheen has a small but excellent early role, and Ben Stein, as the most boring economics teacher in history, makes a compelling case for our hero’s truancy.

Mean Girls (2004)—Lindsay Lohan stars as a girl new not just to American high school but to school, period—she’s been homeschooled in Africa by her scientist parents. She initially views the predatory and dominance behavior of her new environment in terms of the African wild, but soon enough she slips into it herself, falling under the influence of the title characters, a clique led by Rachel McAdams. The script, by Tina Fey (who also co-stars as a math teacher), uses the teen-comedy template to ingeniously dramatize teenage folkways and mores.

Dazed and Confused (1993)—You might want to include this one in your back-to-school festival, if only to give yourself something to look forward to. Not only is Richard Linklater’s slice-of-life, set at a Texas high school in 1976, one of the best teen comedies of all time, it’s also set on the last day of school.


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