Monday, January 25, 2021
Jan. 25, 2021

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Three movies filled with back-to-school spirit


Whether your school was a nightmare of unequal power dynamics or a comedy of unequal power dynamics, filmmakers have tried to bottle these disparate journeys since the beginning of cinema.

Here are a few favorite scholastic movies for getting in the school spirit.

• “Eighth Grade” (2018): Between the gut-wrenching despair of Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and the cartoonish absurdity of “Napoleon Dynamite” lies Bo Burnham’s directorial debut. The then-28-year-old comedian (who started writing it at 23) delivered an up-to-the-minute portrayal of the life of a modern tween girl.

The conflict with Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is immediately apparent, though there is no particular antagonist or driving event. She is just the child of a single-dad (a delightful Josh Hamilton), living through the last week of middle school and desperately hoping to be something that someone will like. Breaking with the tradition of casting young-looking 20-somethings to play teenagers, the age-appropriate Fisher gives a performance that is groundbreaking in its level of reality and awareness.

While the movie isn’t especially vulgar, it is rated R for a reason. It’s the kind of art that both parents and children will find real and poignant, but that they probably don’t want to watch together.

• ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989): I had an eighth-grade teacher who would stand on desks and shout in class. He was scarily intimidating and wonderfully engaging all at the same time much like Robin Williams’ character in “Dead Poets Society.” A Washington Post reviewer praised Williams for giving a “nicely restrained acting performance” for his role in the 1989 drama, which has since been widely recognized as one of the actor/comedian’s best (and also earned him an Oscar nomination). Set in 1959, Williams’ character, John Keating, is a new English teacher at Welton Academy, an all-male, elite prep school. The students are surprised by Keating’s unorthodox teaching methods (like standing on desks, ripping pages from poetry books, etc.). A Welton alumnus himself, he encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary,” a sentiment he summarizes with the Latin expression carpe diem, which means to “seize the day.” He made his lessons interesting, engaging and dared his students to walk their own paths, which of course, ruffles the feathers of parents and the headmaster. The “O Captain, my Captain!” scene alone is worth watching the movie for.

• ‘The Craft’ (1996): The handsome and hateable slut-shaming jock. As prominent a trope in high school movies as mean cheerleaders, nerds with glasses and out-of-touch administrators. And don’t we all just love it when they get their inevitable comeuppance? In “The Craft,” outcast teen witches run amok with pagan ritual-invoked powers and get so far out of hand, we’re left feeling sorry for the captain of the football team.

It’s a basic walkthrough rectitude, one in which young women — cliche alert! — begin to realize the powers they have, but fail badly in their attempts to use them wisely. “The anti-Clueless,” a few reviews called it back in 1994.