5 Favourite Films Set In (American) High Schools

A number of factors have converged to make this season of life particularly amenable to watching silly movies set in American high schools. I’in between jobs with lots of free time; I’ve been reunited with old friends who I used to watch these movies with; it’s been ten years since I finished high school myself and I’m feeling nostalgic.

When it comes to movies set in American high schools it’s usually hard to tell one from another. They all have almost the exact same story line, the exact same characters, the exact same jokes – sometimes it even feels like they are filmed on the same sets. But there are a handful I really love watching in spite of myself.

Here they are: my top 5 films set in (American) high schools.

Honourable Mentions

There are an enormous number of American High School Films which sadly have not made the cut here. Special mention must be made of films like The Breakfast Club (a pioneer of the sub-genre) and American Beauty (for doing something beautifully tragic with the genre). You could probably also have an entirely separate list for all the fantastic high school movies derived from classic literature such as Clueless, Easy A, 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man.

One final shout out in the honourable mentions category is Orange County (2002) starring Colin Hanks (shown above) and Jack Black. It’s staged over the summer between the end of high school and the start of college, so its only partially a high school film, but I don’t care. Its offbeat humour and eccentric characters have made it a great favourite.

5. High School Musical (2006)

Disney’s High School Musical is the most implausible representation of high school life I have ever seen and I love it so much. In the real world no high school has money to afford those facilities, no conflicts are resolved so quickly and no one breaks out into song in the cafeteria. It’s pure, ridiculous escapism: one of the most perfect high school movies.

4. Mean Girls (2004)

Written by Rosalind Wiseman and Tina FeyMean Girls captures the complicated social climate that high school girls navigate every day. Every day in the early 2000s at least. All the classic plot devices and high school movie jokes are there; the thing that sets this film apart is its exploration of relationships between women. Mean Girls cleverly exposes the subtle power dynamics that women often use to control or oppress each other – intentionally and unintentionally – which can continue even beyond the realm of high school.

3. Juno (2007)

Juno is the story of an eccentric high school student who falls pregnant and decides to deliver her baby to give to another childless couple. It’s definitely a high school movie but both the presence of the foetus and Juno’s own independent character make this film quite different to others. It still addresses classic high school movie themes such as identity, relationships, belonging and ‘what it means to be a functioning adult’. However the baby brings in some other themes too: what is family? What sacrifices are worth making?

Ellen Page is excellent in this film and the cinematography and soundtrack are exceptional too.

2. Bandslam (2009)

Bandslam is my dark horse high school movie. I watched this once expecting to kill a couple of hours with a run-of-the-mill, predictably boring film, but it turned out to be wonderful. It tells the story of Will (played by obscure young actor Gaelan Connell) who retreats into the world of alternative music to escape a bullying. A new school changes everything; Will starts managing a garage band and making friends.

As a young and unknown actor Gaelan Connell’s performance is suprisingly awesome – he is funny and expressive and totally nails the character. Unfortunately this film was released in the aftermath of High School Musical and used as a vehicle to propel Vanessa Hudgens‘ career beyond the Disney studios. She is beautiful and has a lovely voice, but her acting was not so strong. It’s a pity, I think this film could have been something much more than a High-School-Musical-hangover if they’d cast her character differently.

Just like Juno, this film features a great performance from its lead actor, lovely cinematography and an excellent soundtrack. I love it.

1. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Gosh Napoleon! I don’t even know how to describe this film. Deadpan? Absurd? Quirky? None of those are quite right.

My favourite thing about Napoleon Dynamite, as a high school film, is the way it begins a whole lots of standard high school plot lines but constantly gets distracted so that most of them are left unresolved at the end. Kind of like real high school. I think this is probably the closest to high school that my favourite films get: it’s the ordinariness, the bleakness, the boringness and the unlimited potential of high school life.

I caught you a delicious bass.

3 thoughts on “5 Favourite Films Set In (American) High Schools

  1. Elizabeth Culhane

    Loved this post. But no Save The Last Dance?
    (I guess it’s not typically “highschool”). Donnie Darko?

    Unfortunately I could never get into NapDyn. Same with HSM. I haven’t seen #4, so will have to add it to my to-watch list!

    1. Alison Post author

      Donnie Darko! How did I forget you?
      I think I probably should have done a top 10… There are just too many films!


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