Back-to-school might look a little different for many students this year; luckily, classic back-to-school movies always look the same. Here are 10 of my favorites, ranging from brand-new-on-Netflix to a classic from my own high school days.
“Booksmart” (2019; R): Both thoroughly raunchy and utterly adorable, Olivia Wilde’s high school comedy is about a different kind of love story: that which unfolds between two best friends. Smart, funny high school seniors Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) decide on graduation night to cast off their good-girl habits; the result is an epic evening of adventure in which you just might fall in love with their friendship. (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)
“Fame” (the real one from 1980, not the pallid 2009 imitation; R): As someone who once owned the LP soundtrack of this movie (yes, I am old), let me just say that this tale of a diverse, talented group of teens attending New York’s High School of the Performing Arts thrilled me way back when and that I can still hear Irene Cara in my head, belting out “Baby, remember my name!” I guess I did. (Google Play, iTunes, Vudu)
“The Half of It” (2020; PG-13): The sweetest high school rom-com imaginable, Alice Wu’s charmer of a film is a fresh take on “Cyrano de Bergerac”: High school senior Ellie (Leah Lewis) is in love with classmate Aster (Alexxis Lemire) but unable to express it and finds herself writing poetic love notes to Aster on behalf of her inexpressive friend Paul (Daniel Diemer). Enchanting complications and some end-of-school growing-up ensue. (Netflix)
“Juno” (2007; PG-13): OK, maybe Jason Reitman’s comedy isn’t strictly a back-to-school movie, but it’s about high school students so let’s go with that. Juno (Ellen Page) is a pregnant teen in love with her dorky classmate Bleeker (Michael Cera); the film, unfolding over a school year, becomes a warm, quirky tribute to love and to families, in all their unexpected forms. Have a tissue ready; J.K. Simmons, as Juno’s supportive dad, is going to make you cry. (Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes)
“A Little Princess” (1995; G): Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel and directed by Alfonso Cuaron (whose “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was the best of the Potter lot), this is an enchanting all-ages tale of a girls’ boarding school in Edwardian England, in which a once-wealthy orphan (Liesel Matthews) faces a dramatic change in circumstances. Gorgeously filmed, it was an Oscar nominee for cinematography and art direction. (HBO Max, iTunes, Vudu)
“Rushmore” (1999; R): Wes Anderson’s second feature was this prep-school gem about an unlikely friendship, between a teen (Jason Schwartzman) obsessed with his school but unable to succeed academically and a businessman (Bill Murray) disappointed by what kind of man he’s become. Murray is perfection here he was robbed of an Oscar that year and Schwartzman perfectly finds his character’s balance between obnoxious and endearing. The ending brings guaranteed happiness. (Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu)
“School of Rock” (2003; PG-13): Though most of the titles on this list are high school movies, this Richard Linklater comedy is an adorably raucous trip through middle school. Jack Black, in a performance so physical he practically becomes a guitar, plays a failed musician who poses as a substitute teacher and ends up turning his class into a rock band. Raise your goblet of rock and watch this one again; it’s every bit as much fun as you remember. (Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Vudu)
“The Spectacular Now” (2013; R): Young love is a staple of high school movies; this one, starring Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller, feels more honest than most in the genre. You believe that these two 20-something actors are teenagers in a small town; you believe the details of their romance; and you leave the film, after its note-perfect ending, wishing them well. (Showtime, Kanopy, Amazon Prime)
“Step” (2017; PG): This list needed a documentary, and this one is a joy: Director Amanda Lipitz followed three Baltimore high school seniors as they prepared for a tense step-class competition and for the college applications that could change their lives. You realize, watching it, that you’re seeing fledglings get their wings; just try to stay dry-eyed. (Seattle’s Vulcan Productions was among the film’s producers.) (Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu)
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018; TV-14): A breakout Netflix hit, this rom-com (based on the bestselling YA novel by Jenny Han) involves a couple of high schoolers in a fake relationship and if you’ve ever seen a rom-com, you know what happens next. But Lana Condor and Noah Centino bring an enchanting freshness to the proceedings, and the epistolary framework of the story is a delight. P.S. There’s a sequel, too, should you need extra credit. (Netflix)
I have, of course, left out plenty: “The Breakfast Club,” “Lady Bird,” “Election,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Clueless,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the “Harry Potter” movies (has any school setting ever been more appealing than the Gryffindor common room?) and so many more.