The 25 Best High School Movies

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Whether you loved high school or hated it, filmmakers seem determined to give you as many opportunities as possible to relive it. Hollywood has been cranking out movies set against the backdrop of high school since at least 1940, but the high school movie as we know it today didn’t really come of age until the ’70s, when movies like Grease and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School paved the way for the explosion of teen films that would help define the ’80s (some of which weren’t even written or directed by John Hughes). Spanning six decades and multiple genres—comedy, drama, horror, noir, musical, and romance—here are 25 movies (listed in chronological order) that belong on your high school cinema syllabus. 

A note about our selection criteria: In deference to every teenager who ever existed, we’re sticking with movies that relegate adults to the sidelines and focus on their teen characters. So, while Blackboard Jungle and Dead Poets Society are great films that center around life in high school, we’re leaving them for other lists. The same goes for movies like Rebel Without a Cause and American Graffiti; both are brilliant, culturally important explorations of adolescence and coming-of-age, but since they aren’t explicitly concerned with high school and its social constructs, we’re not counting them as “high school movies” for the purposes of this list. 

Peter Bogdanovich’s mournful masterpiece isn’t so much about high school as the inevitable leaving of it and all that entails. Based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, the story includes such candid depictions of teen sexuality—not to mention a brass-knuckled takedown of small-town life—that the residents of McMurtry’s hometown, where the movie was filmed, considered the semiautobiographical source material a “dirty book.” Locals were angry about the movie, too, fearing it depicted their town as “another Peyton Place,” according to a story that ran in the Los Angeles Times a few months after the film was released. McMurtry reportedly got so fed up that he wrote to his hometown newspaper and offered to publicly debate anyone who had a problem with what he’d written. There were no takers. 

It’s hard to overstate the cultural and historical significance of Michael Schultz’s sometimes-funny, sometimes-heartbreaking slice-of-lifer about two Black teenagers who ditch school for a day during the final weeks of their senior year. Cooley High is a cinema milestone that would go on to influence everything from Boyz N the Hood to Dazed and Confused. Marketing materials called it “the Black American Graffiti,” but Francis Ford Coppola might disagree; when he saw the movie, he reportedly called American Graffiti director George Lucas to tell him Schultz had outdone him. 

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Stephen King based his tortured heroine Carrie White on two teenage outcasts he remembered from his own high school days: a girl who had epilepsy, and one who wore the same clothes to school every day. King wrote favorably about Brian de Palma’s stylish and frightening adaptation in his 1981 book Danse Macabre, noting that, while his novel took a fairly conventional approach to what he called the “ant farm” of high school, de Palma’s film depicts Bates High as a sinister matriarchy. “No matter where you look,” King wrote, “there are girls behind the scenes, pulling invisible wires, rigging elections, using their boyfriends as stalking horses.”

Before her 1983 film Entre Nous earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, writer-director Diane Kurys scored a commercial and critical hit with her semi-autobiographical teen dramedy Peppermint Soda. “[T]here are a lot of films about adolescent boys, since most directors are men, but there are very few films about girls in high school and how they’re raised,” Kurys told The New York Times in 1979. She wrote Peppermint Soda, largely based on her own childhood in Paris, to correct that oversight. Charming yet unsentimental, Kurys’s film is both a gentle coming-of-age story and a sobering look at the political unrest that would culminate in the student-led protests of May 1968. 

Fame offered an early counterweight to the bubblier ’80s high school movies that would follow it. Its cast might have a habit of breaking into song and dance, but Fame is a high school movie scrubbed of the upbeat optimism that would come to define the genre. By the time they graduate, Fame’s kids will have dealt with drug abuse, abortion, suicidal thoughts, and sexual exploitation, on top of the crushing pressures of show business. Director Alan Parker, fresh off his successful, Oliver Stone-scripted prison film Midnight Express, wanted to shoot his musical in the actual New York high school where it’s set, but the city’s Department of Education balked when they read his script. “Mr. Parker,” he was reportedly told by a city official, “I can’t risk you doing for New York high schools the same thing you did for the reputations of Turkish prisons in your last film.”

Amy Heckerling’s directorial debut, adapted from a nonfiction book by Cameron Crowe, helped sketch the template for the wave of high school movies that followed it, and it’s one of the sharpest dissections of teen culture ever committed to film. Fast Times launched or boosted the careers of many of its young stars, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, Judge Reinhold, and Phoebe Cates. For whatever reason, the Ridgemont High magic didn’t work for Pamela Springsteen, sister of Bruce: Fast Times marked her big-screen debut, but afterward her film career peaked with 1988’s Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and its direct-to-video 1989 follow-up Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland.

John Hughes’s directorial debut famously includes a pair of young actors, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, who would also star in his next film, The Breakfast Club. The cast almost included one more future clubber: Ally Sheedy, who had recently co-starred with Matthew Broderick in WarGames. According to Susannah Gora’s 2010 book You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, the then-USC drama student had gotten whacked in the face with a board while building a set for a school production, and she showed up at her Sixteen Candles audition the next day with two black eyes. She didn’t get the part, but her appearance made such an impression on Hughes that he thought of her when it was time to cast the role of Allison Reynolds, The Breakfast Club’s eccentric “freak.” (But only after Ringwald turned down the part, fearing she’d be typecast if she played another outsider.)

A movie as iconic as The Breakfast Club deserves an equally memorable poster, and thanks to future Library of Congress Living Legend Annie Leibovitz, it got one. To capture the now-iconic image, Leibovitz—already well-known for her work with Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair—put up a lavender backdrop in a hallway of the school where the movie was filmed and then directed the young cast through a series of poses. The result is one of the most parodied movie posters ever, inspiring riffs in the marketing materials for everything from Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 to Ready Player One and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Leibovitz would also create the photograph used on the poster for the Hughes-scripted teen drama Some Kind of Wonderful

Matthew Broderick was a Tony Award-winning star when he was offered the title role in the second John Hughes-scripted film of 1986. (Pretty in Pink was the first.) But his experience playing Eugene Jerome on Broadway in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues made him hesitant to take on the role of Ferris Bueller, another charming kid who talks his way out of trouble and frequently breaks the fourth wall. “Am I basically playing the same part over and over again?” he wondered, according to You Couldn’t Ignore Me if You Tried. But Broderick’s desire to work with Hughes—not to mention some intense pressure from his agents to take the role—outweighed his reservations, and his performance helped make Ferris Bueller’s Day Off one of the most beloved high school movies ever released.

Writer Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann’s pitch-black story of sex, revenge, and murder at an Ohio high school freaked out adults before it was even produced. Winona Ryder’s agent literally begged the actress not to take the part; Heather Graham’s parents refused to let her play Heather Number One; and representatives of 7-11 convenience stores and Perrier bottled water wouldn’t allow their companies’ names or products to be featured in the movie. We can only imagine what they would have thought of the original ending, which had J.D. succeed in his plot to blow up the school, killing practically everyone in the movie. 

If it had been up to John Cusack, Say Anything’s most iconic image never would have happened. Cusack was adamantly opposed to director Cameron Crowe’s idea to have Lloyd hoist a boombox above his head to serenade Diane, fearing it would make the character look “subservient to her.” They shot the scene several different ways (none of which worked) before Cusack finally relented on the last day of shooting. But the song he was blasting on set wasn’t Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”—it was the bleak Fishbone tune “Turn the Other Way,” which includes such upbeat lyrics as “ebbing waves of death and fear” and “search for freedom / and the world just slaps your face.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin, better known as Kid ’n Play, starring in writer-director Reginald Hudlin’s breakout hit. But New Line Cinema reportedly first offered the project to Jeff Townes and Will Smith, a.k.a. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, who had recently settled a lawsuit after using unauthorized samples from New Line’s A Nightmare on Elm Street in their 1988 single “A Nightmare on My Street.” The pair had the option to make two movies with the studio, with their salaries being deducted from the settlement amount. House Party was offered up as one of those films, but they turned it down, paving the way for Reid and Martin to join the cast instead. According to Reid, that’s not the only time the two rap acts would be up for the same project: He says the sitcom that eventually became NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was originally intended as a primetime vehicle for Kid ’n Play, but the Christophers backed out of the pilot after the network canceled its animated Kid ’n Play series.

Richard Linklater’s incisive film about the last day of school in 1976 has a connection to another high school classic on this list: Its casting directory, Don Phillips, was also responsible for assembling the now-legendary cast of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Throughout his 50 years in Hollywood casting departments, Phillips was credited with launching the careers of Sean Penn, Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Mary Steenburgen, Milla Jovovich, and Renée Zellweger, who, incidentally, makes an uncredited appearance in Dazed and Confused. (That’s her holding the funnel.)

Writer-director Amy Heckerling originally conceived the story that would become Clueless as a television pilot called No Worries. When that project failed to gain traction, her agent suggested turning the script into a feature, and Heckerling found inspiration in a novel she’d read in college: Jane Austen’s Emma. Using Austen’s comedy of manners as a blueprint for her tale of matchmaking and makeovers in an idealized version of Beverly Hills, Heckerling worked her television script into a feature, only to find that no one in Hollywood wanted to make that version either—until producer Scott Rudin read it and loved it, kicking off a bidding war that was won by Paramount. The rest is, like, history or whatever. 

Wes Craven originally planned to shoot his high-school slasher film at an actual, functioning high school: Santa Rosa High in Sonoma County, California, where scenes from Peggy Sue Got Married were shot. The school’s principal gave Craven the OK and went as far as working out a shooting schedule, only to be overruled by city officials just weeks before cameras were set to roll. The production was moved to the Sonoma Community Center (originally an elementary school), and according to Hollywood legend, Craven urged Hollywood to boycott Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. The late filmmaker’s frustration is evident in Scream’s closing credits, which include a message that reads, “No thanks whatsoever to the Santa Rosa City School District Governing Board.”

Alexander Payne’s movie about a brutal high school student council election has a strange postscript: In 2011, a workprint featuring the film’s original, very different ending was discovered in a box of VHS tapes purchased at a Delaware farmers’ market. The unused ending, which hews more closely to the Tom Perrotta novel upon which the movie is based, features an uncharacteristically humble Tracy Flick making peace with Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick), the civics teacher who tried to undermine her campaign for class president. Test audiences weren’t keen on the otherwise brutal film’s make-nice ending, so a second, darker version was shot to replace it. We don’t get a chance to say this often, but the test audiences were right. 

Screenwriter Jessica Bendinger’s passion project was rejected dozens of times and then languished in development hell for years after it was picked up by Beacon Pictures, which had a first-look deal with Universal. Bendinger’s pitch was fresh, funny, and set in a dynamic world that hadn’t yet been explored in teen movies: competitive cheering. Sadly, though, her feminist treatise on cultural appropriation and intersectionality (yes, really) didn’t get any traction until a famous white guy decided to advocate for it. According to MTV’s oral history of the movie, The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme read the script, loved it, and called Universal chair Stacey Snider to gush about it. Within 48 hours, Bring It On was officially in pre-production. The movie no one wanted to make grossed $90 million at the box office and launched a franchise that’s still making headlines

Mean Girls was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 parenting guide Queen Bees and Wannabes, but Tina Fey is the only screenwriter who ever worked on the film—a rarity in an industry that regularly employs a team of writers (sometimes working together but often working separately) to produce a shooting script. If a scene wasn’t working during filming, it was Fey who fixed it; she even worked with director Mark Waters to sharpen up some of the film’s dialogue in post-production. But when it came time to write Kevin G’s famous talent show rap, Fey called in a ringer: her SNL and Mean Girls co-star Amy Poehler, who helped write the rap and even choreographed some of actor Rajiv Surendra’s fetch dance moves. 

Rian Johnson wrote the first draft of Brick’s screenplay just after he graduated from USC’s film school in 1996. He wanted to make a detective movie inspired by the work of The Maltese Falcon author Dashiell Hammett, whom he’d discovered thanks to the Coen brothers’ gangster classic Miller’s Crossing. Johnson’s decision to set the film in a California high school was initially just a gimmick to set it apart, but he soon found the setting enhanced the material and gave the story a fresh intensity. “[Y]our head is encased in this fish bowl, this microcosmic world, for four years,” Johnson told The A.V. Club in 2006. “And because you’re an adolescent, everything, from pain to joy to love to losing love, everything, you feel so vibrantly and sharply during that time.”

If Superbad feels like one of cinema’s most accurate depictions of teenage boys in recent memory, there’s a good reason: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg started writing it when they were only 14 years old. The film is loosely based on the pair’s misadventures while they were students at Point Grey Secondary School in Vancouver—the same school where scenes from the CW’s Riverdale, Fox’s Lucifer, and Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before were filmed. 

Rick Famuyiwa’s film about three ’90s-culture-obsessed “geeks” whose lives are turned upside-down when they accidentally acquire a backpack full of drugs was just as inventive in its marketing as its execution. To coincide with the main character’s bitcoin obsession, Dope was the first movie to accept the digital currency for ticket purchases. But anyone who bought their ticket with bitcoin might wish they’d saved it instead. When Dope opened in June 2015, one bitcoin was worth about $244, so a $12 movie ticket would have cost roughly .0492 bitcoin. By August 2022, when a single bitcoin was trading at approximately $20,000, the amount they spent on a Dope ticket would have been worth nearly $1000 if they’d held onto it. 

Screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig had only one produced credit to her name (2009’s Post Grad) when she sent a script she’d written to legendary producer-writer-director James L. Brooks, who had previously mentored Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson. Brooks was so impressed by Fremon Craig’s script that he not only agreed to produce it, but also brought the young writer on board to direct. Fremon Craig’s new project is an adaptation of Judy Blume’s classic coming-of-age novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, slated for release in April 2023. 

Though she was born in the Bronx, Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan moved to Ireland with her parents when she was 3 years old and never attended an American high school. As a result, the actress has said, her entire idea of American teen culture came from television shows such as Saved by the Bell and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing when it came to her portrayal of Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson, a Sacramento teen navigating her senior year of high school. To help Ronan prepare for her role, writer-director Greta Gerwig asked her to watch Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles—two films that would help Ronan understand Lady Bird’s romanticized ideas of what her life is supposed to look like.

By the time cameras rolled on Booksmart in 2018, the script had been floating around Hollywood for almost a decade. The original 2009 version by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins centered on two girls determined to find boyfriends in time for their senior prom. A rewrite by Susanna Fogel, director of The Spy Who Dumped Me, introduced the story’s LGBTQ elements, and once actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde came on board, she teamed with writer Katie Silberman to update the script for 2019 audiences. It was Silberman who suggested they ditch the prom plot in favor of a story about two overachievers who set out to cram four years of partying into one chaotic night.

Chinese American writer-director Alice Wu made a splash with her 2005 debut Saving Face, but then had to leave the film industry to care for her mother. After her mom recovered and a long-term relationship ended, Wu eventually decided to make a second movie, but she found it difficult to get back into writing mode. To motivate herself to finish the script for The Half of It—a modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac that centers on a gay, Chinese American teen in a small, conservative town—Wu wrote a $1000 check to the National Rifle Association and gave it to a friend, with instructions to mail it to the NRA if Wu didn’t complete her script in five weeks. To add even more pressure, she told all her friends what she’d done. “It was like having a thousand agents breathing down my neck,” Wu told Refinery29. Thankfully, Wu’s trick worked, and The Half of It proved Saving Face was anything but a fluke. 

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