The movies that stay with us—other than, apparently, superhero epics bolstered by years of IP exploitation—are the ones in which we can see ourselves. In that way, the high school movie is a bit of a cheat code. We’ve all been there. While there may not have been anyone at our schools who looked like Paul Walker in She’s All That—because Paul Walker was 26 years old in She’s All That—we’ve all experienced the fresh highs and cruel lows of teen life; the cliques, the friendships, the anxiety of what comes next, the pain of being unnoticed, the unparalleled stakes of new love. When a film reflects those experiences back to us, we instantly know who to root for—because we are rooting for younger versions of ourselves. (For some of us, at least; it’s worth noting right away that the high school movie genre is and always has been overwhelmingly white.)
Thus the high school movie will never die, but instead will continue to evolve, from the wish-fulfillment era of the late ’90s to the more grounded representations of movies like Lady Bird and Booksmart, the Olivia Wilde film out this Friday.
With the release of Booksmart, now seems as good a time as ever to take stock of the high school movie genre as a whole, to appreciate its many different forms and praise its greatest achievements. But before that, we need to properly decide: What really is a high school movie?
One rule in defining the genre is obvious: The majority of a high school movie must be set in or directly around a high school. The other rules are a little less obvious and, admittedly, somewhat up for debate. But we feel that high school movies should address the trials and tribulations of growing up primarily in an environment of one’s peers, and all that might come with that—the romance, the camaraderie, the fear, the ennui. And they should be expressly concerned with the micro-society of high school, the groups and rules and norms we instill as we move through life as teenagers. That’s why Back to the Future, a movie that does have many scenes set in a high school, is not a high school movie—it’s far more concerned with Marty McFly’s efforts to return to 1985 than it is his integration as a new student into Hill Valley High. (Which is good, really: The less time spent on “Marty’s mom super wants to have sex with him,” the better.)
A high school movie should, in one way or another, make us remember all that we felt in those years—and then explain why we felt those things. If it doesn’t do that, or if it’s more occupied with other aims, it’s not a high school movie. With that said, here are The Ringer’s 25 best high school movies of all time.
25. High School Musical
Kate Halliwell: It’s important to remember that High School Musical was originally conceived as a Disney Channel Original adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, focusing entirely on a musical romance between a popular jock and the prettiest “nerdy girl” ever to excel at STEM. Not a groundbreaking concept! But boosted by the star power of a young Zac Efron and a host of legitimately iconic, catchy songs, High School Musical exploded into a tweenage phenomenon, inspiring a full trilogy and timeless meme potential. If you were in a school choir when High School Musical came out, there is zero chance that you did not at some point perform a sad, poorly adapted rendition of “We’re All in This Together.” (The choreography from the chorus still haunts my dreams.)
24. Sixteen Candles
Claire McNear: Let’s say this for Sixteen Candles: It has about as perfect a setup as any high school movie ever. Technically speaking, it has two setups that run concurrently—first, that our poor heroine, played by John Hughes muse Molly Ringwald, awakens on her 16th birthday to discover that every member of her family has forgotten all about it; and second, that her crush (the most popular guy in school, natch) finds out about her obsession and spends the course of the movie gradually learning about her (and falling for her, double natch).
Everything else, though, is … yikes. Sixteen Candles hasn’t aged well since its 1984 release, to the point that it’s hard to imagine it ever playing well. One of the film’s defining moments comes when Jake, the object of Ringwald’s affection—played off otherwise as an upstanding fella—notes that his mega-popular girlfriend is passed out drunk in his parents’ house. “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to,” he tells the movie’s requisite geek, Ted, before arranging a trade: Jake will give—yes, give—Ted his passed-out girlfriend for the night to do whatever he likes, if Ted will give him a pair of Molly Ringwald’s panties in exchange. The geek readily agrees and there he and Jake go, dragging the woman’s limp body into a car so Ted can do as he pleases. Last year, Ringwald herself seconded the idea that movies like this one contributed to a dangerous rape culture in the ’80s; in The New Yorker, she wrote about her reluctance to show these movies to her own teenage daughter. Many Hughes joints have withstood the test of time, but the ugliness coursing through this one is better left in the past.
23. She’s All That
Andrew Gruttadaro: I’m sure you know the story: Freddie Prinze Jr. and Paul Walker make a bet that the former can’t turn a hapless loser (Rachael Leigh Cook) into a prom queen, an indecent proposal that eventually leads to true love. As a text, She’s All That hasn’t exactly held up, as riddled with misogyny and body-shaming as it is; the scene in which Prinze and Walker strut around school looking for a target, which includes the phrase “rectal archeology,” is rough. But as a time capsule, She’s All That is a wonder, capturing two late-’90s icons in their primes, and featuring an entire subplot about a guy who gets famous off The Real World (played by a Kappa-wearing, scene-chewing Matthew Lillard) and an absurd, highly choreographed prom dance scene led by Usher, who I guess goes to the high school? It’s not a perfect movie, but is a perfect representation of a very specific era of the high school genre.
22. Varsity Blues
Gruttadaro: I don’t want your laife. Can I just copy and paste this perfect line from Jonathan “Mox” Moxon over and over and call it a day? No? I need to defend Varsity Blues further? OK, fine: Varsity Blues is Friday Night Lights for the MTV generation, an odd chemistry of melodrama, fantasy, and football. It’s completely ridiculous—there’s literally a scene where Mox and his teammates, WHO ARE IN HIGH SCHOOL, go to a strip club and discover that their teacher is also a dancer. But it also works—as a football movie, yes, but even more as a high school movie, as Mox’s ethos of “this is our time, damn the man” is a quintessentially high school rallying cry. Who among us hasn’t had to slough off the oppressive burden of Jon Voight/our forebears on the journey toward adulthood?
21. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Halliwell: Some people may point to Set It Up as the movie that launched the new Netflix Rom-Com Golden Age; I’m afraid those people are dumb and wrong. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a delightful adaptation of Jenny Han’s book series, introduced the world to Noah Centineo and Lana Condor, showed just how far a fun Netflix rom-com can go, and created an instant-classic high school movie in the process. The two main characters occupy (and elevate!) two classic high school movie archetypes; Lara Jean is the spunky, artsy, relatable lead, and Peter Kavinsky is the handsome, slightly douchey jock. Except the thing is, he’s not just that—he also drinks kombucha, loves a romantic gesture, and willingly agrees to fake-date Lara Jean (another classic high school movie trope, played here to cheesy perfection). Centineo’s scene-stealing charm catapulted him to fame overnight, and while it remains to be seen just how long that fame will last, Peter Kavinsky will go down in film history as one of the best, most legitimately datable high school movie love interests of all time. Take that, Troy Bolton!
20. House Party
Donnie Kwak: Love a movie whose title is the premise—add “starring Kid ‘n Play” and you need only one floor for an elevator pitch. (Sidebar: I was yesterday-years-old when I found out that the roles were originally meant for Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff.) Reginald Hudlin’s 1990 film—about virile teenagers getting wholesomely lit on a night without parental supervision—is a coming-of-age comedy, a dance-filled musical (also featuring Full Force as the school bullies and George Clinton as a DJ), and a rap-slang time capsule all in one. (Kid’s high-top fade deserves its own billing.) Perhaps most importantly, it was cinematic proof that—gasp—middle-class, happy-go-lucky black kids existed, and their experiences could be entertaining fodder for all. LeBron wants to remake it; someone DM Rae Sremmurd. They better learn this, though:
Alison Herman: The annals of American teen comedies are littered with racial stereotypes (Sixteen Candles), sexual assault (Revenge of the Nerds), and any number of offenses that have aged poorly. Still, it’s hard to top Grease’s final takeaway for regrettable themes: If the guy you like can’t accept you for who you are, change your entire personality to fit conventional norms of hotness he can understand!
Fortunately, Grease overcomes both its message and its obviously 30-something cast with the power of song. “Beauty School Dropout,” “Greased Lightning,” and “Summer Love” are eternal classics, turning a two-dimensional love story between a good girl and a greaser into a late-’70s epic. Grease’s vision of the 1950s is far enough away from its source material to be stylized, yet close enough to draw from experience. This isn’t John Waters’s twisted, tongue-in-cheek vision of the most Americana-saturated of American decades. Grease is at once completely earnest and absurdly over the top, the perfect vehicle for teenagers’ heightened emotions.
Chris Ryan: For a movie so narratively complex and linguistically rich, Brick’s pitch is pretty straightforward: Philip Marlowe, but high school. Made on a shoestring budget, Rian Johnson’s feature debut is a film noir set in a teenage wasteland. Gone are the moody shadows and dark nights of the city, replaced with the harsh and boring afternoons of the suburbs. Brick comes complete with a private eye, a missing girl, a femme fatale, a crime boss, and a rogue’s gallery, made up of just kids. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a brainy, quiet guy on the margins of his school’s social caste system, who “eats lunch by the portables.” He becomes obsessed with finding a missing ex, played by Lost’s Emilie de Ravin. He learns the truth, but everyone’s got something to hide. You know the story, but you’ve never heard it told like this.
While skipping along at the rat-a-tat cadence of classic crime films like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, Brick has a vocabulary all its own. This is a film spoken in code—a hyperstylized take on the often impenetrable slang-laden language of adolescence.
17. 21 Jump Street
Amanda Dobbins: There are three rules of “coolness in high school,” explains Channing Tatum as Jenko, one half of the soon-to-be-undercover buddy-cop team in 21 Jump Street. Jenko is the former jock in the equation, and as such has a strong grip on the social rules that have informed high schools, and thus high school movies, for the better part of 50 years: “(1) Don’t try hard at anything. (2) Make fun of people who do try. (3) Be handsome. (4) If anyone steps to you on the first day of school, punch them directly in the face. (5) Drive a kick-ass car.”
The rest of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 21 Jump Street is dedicated to proving Jenko wrong, cheekily updating and critiquing the lessons of most of the movies on this list. It’s not as serious as it sounds; Jenko and his nerdy best pal Schmidt (Jonah Hill) still manage to screw up most of their professional responsibilities, including knowing the Miranda rights and not falling in love with students. The obligatory “tripping balls” sequence is as pure an expression of physical comedy as exists outside of Jackass. And at the end of the day, the college sequel—referenced in the movie, one of its many jokes—is just around the corner. 21 Jump Street knows the high school beats and the remake beats, and knows you know them too. There are worse ways to be cool in high school.
Miles Surrey: Heathers takes the stuff most high school movies handle with gravitas—eating disorders, suicide, sexual assault, sexuality, gun violence—and turns it into nihilistic punch lines. Since teenagers often treat typical high school concerns like they’re a matter of life and death, Heathers asks: What if we literally did that? The result is—well, it’s a lot, but it’s also effective. One of the film’s funniest, most emotional beats—after Christian Slater’s J.D. and Winona Ryder’s Veronica kill two jocks and stage it to look like a suicide motivated by gay repression—is a father’s eulogy at as he fights through tears: “I love my dead gay son!”
That scene represents the caustic tone Heathers embodies, one that can be read as offensive from a certain critical lens. But Heathers’ shock value and bleak reflection of adolescent self-obsession is also why it’s great and deserving of its cult status. Contrary to its ensemble, there really can be only one Heathers.
15. The Edge of Seventeen
Alison Herman: Hailee Steinfeld was introduced to the world as a Coen brothers ingenue and, later, a minor pop star. Edge of Seventeen establishes her as a capital-a Actress, anchoring a totally realistic, admirably hookless story about a girl in grief, unmoored by her brother’s starting to date her best friend. Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut is produced by no less a luminary than James L. Brooks, and proves itself a worthy inheritor of Brooks’s signature blend of humor and heft, shot through with empathy. Woody Harrelson gives the stock “supportive teacher” character some much-needed rough edges to go with the warmth, but this is the rare film grounded firmly in the perspective of a teenage girl. Steinfeld embodies the danger, fury, and intensity of that moment in all its contradictions, making for quite the calling card as she graduates from child star to adult professional.
14. Say Anything …
Sean Fennessey: Is Lloyd Dobler a sociopath or a romantic? A manifestation of adolescent id or a salvation from the anxiety of teendom? Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut is defined by Dobler’s quirks—kick-boxing, Peter Gabriel, etc.—and Diane’s lost innocence. John Cusack and Ione Skye’s love is sweet and emotionally elusive, like a lot of high school feelings. What makes this movie special is it insistence upon a tone that had hardly ever existed. Cusack’s character is so damned strange but so utterly sincere. It’d become a hallmark of Crowe’s heroes—figures hovering just outside the standard emotional spectrum, in search of ways to connect with their fellow humans. But Lloyd Dobler has never been equaled.
Alyssa Bereznak: No high school movie premise is quite as intoxicating as “Brilliant Fuck-up Seeks Thrills.” So the fact that Wes Anderson’s breakout film managed to elevate the fable of the precocious high schooler to new absurd levels is a testament to both his imagination and his undying commitment to a bit. Rushmore pits the young Max Fischer (played by an ultra-pale, chubby-cheeked Jason Schwartzman) against bullying millionaire Herman Blume (Bill Murray). The two duke it out for a fetching school teacher’s love. Bees are dispensed. Bikes are mangled. Breaks are cut. An elaborate school play based on the Vietnam War is staged.
The intensity that both Schwartzman and Murray bring to their sad-sack roles makes the film especially funny. But it’s Anderson’s riveting direction—set to a soundtrack of infectious 1960s pop—that makes it so very memorable. There may be no better visual representation of midlife melancholy than Murray in Budweiser-branded swim trunks listlessly cannonballing into a pool to the Kinks.
12. Bring It On
Juliet Litman: If the strength of high school movies was evaluated solely on the hilarious casting relative to the era, Bring It On may be the greatest one of all time. Rich girl Darcy is played by Tsianina Joelson, which meant something in 2000—she was the host of MTV’s The Daily Burn, the network’s exercise morning show that updated the TV aerobics trend for teens; Blaque, an R&B trio popular at the turn of the century, played three Clovers cheerleaders, backup to Gabrielle Union’s lead. However, stunt casting was not necessary given the catchy cheers, an unimpeachable opening sequence, and the presence of titans in Union and Kirsten Dunst. Admittedly, in Bring It On, high school is more of a factual side note to the cheering—for many high school athletes and cheerleaders, though, that may be quite realistic.
Bereznak: I can still remember the moment my mother pitched me on Carrie as we were perusing the aisles of Blockbuster on Friday night. “It’s like Matilda but creepy,” she said. I can’t think of a more euphemistic summary for Brian De Palma’s horrifying 1976 Stephen King adaptation. A shy 16-year-old is tormented by her classmates at school and her ultrareligious mother at home. Pushed to the brink, she begins exhibiting supernatural powers that punish the people who wronged her. A broken light bulb here, an overturned ashtray there. Her full abilities coalesce during one of the most iconic scenes in high school movie history: Carrie’s being crowned as prom queen, only to be rudely interrupted by a bucket of pig’s blood planted by her popular kid rivals. The fiery double-screen rampage that follows is a landmark moment in horror filmmaking, and the film itself remains one of the most chilling depictions of a scorned teen misfit’s ultimate revenge.
Bereznak: Hell hath no fury like an ambitious young woman running for school government. In Alexander Payne’s 1999 film, an upbeat student named Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) launches her candidacy for class president with a professionalism so cloying that beloved teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) vows to sabotage it. He soon learns he is no match for Flick, who goes to great lengths to cut down her opponents and ruin McAllister’s life. That the film bombed at the box office is an indication that the public was not quite ready to confront the realities of the post-Lewinsky political environment: specifically that sex, strategy, and manipulation were all part of the process. That Election could now easily pass as a precursor to Veep is proof of how far we’ve come.
9. 10 Things I Hate About You
McNear: Pity the centuries’ worth of forebearers who had the misfortune of seeing The Taming of the Shrew before the writing team of Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith (Legally Blonde, Ella Enchanted) finally figured out what it was missing: ritzy prep school drama. Also here: Julia Stiles at the apex of her teen powers, Heath Ledger’s dimples, baby-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Heath Ledger’s dimples, a killer soundtrack (shouts to Letters to Cleo), and Heath Ledger’s dimples.
10 Things I Hate About You isn’t realistic, per se, but if you’re looking for the version of high school that exists in all those best-years-of-your-life tales and not the one with acne, precalc midterms, and devastating social anxiety, this is as good as it gets.
8. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Rob Harvilla: You know a high school movie has ascended to true greatness when even hearing or reading the movie’s title gets a specific pop song stuck in your head. And so it goes with 1982’s raucous and bittersweet Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a hard-nosed teen sex comedy that derives much of its sublime bittersweetness from Jackson Browne’s soft-rock anthem, “Somebody’s Baby.” The tune plays on a car stereo as 15-year-old Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is driven by a much older boy to “The Point,” which is a graffiti-strewn baseball dugout, and where Stacy loses her virginity, bittersweetly. “I feel like I should look different,” she tells her friend afterward. Teen sex comedies looked very different from that point on.
The sheer amount of talent introduced in Fast Times is staggering, from the director (Amy Heckerling!) to the screenwriter (Cameron Crowe) to the actors. (It was the breakout film for the likes of Leigh, Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, and a pissed-off Forest Whitaker.) But the movie’s blunt, lascivious tone, from the sex scenes (no links, pervs) to the consequences of those sex scenes, is Fast Times’ true legacy. “We got really nasty comments like, ‘How dare you show us teenagers only doing sex!’ and ‘How dare you show an abortion! We don’t believe in that!’” Heckerling told The Ringer in 2017, recalling some early screenings. The film was a modest hit in theaters that bloomed into a slow-burn cult classic for precisely that willingness to antagonize the squeamish by laying bare both the ecstasies and the agonies of being young.
7. Dazed and Confused
Fennessey: This is all about Randall “Pink” Floyd. Richard Linklater’s beloved all-in-one-night Austin teen saga shows all the colors of high school—pre-frosh and post-grad, left-behind fifth-year seniors and cute sophomores. But it’s Pink who binds them all together, a star QB trapped in a friendly stoner’s body—or maybe it’s the other way around. Pink is a Linklater proxy, and the one who gives us access to the interconnected ecosystem of high school, a place that sometimes resembles a jungle bound by initiation or otherwise an enchanted forest. There still hasn’t been a truer depiction of the perilous nature of high school friendships, the way they can slip through your fingers or seem like the most crucial bonds that can be built. Linklater’s movie rollicks with classic rock and revels in its haphazard structure, bounding from party to party. And by the time it ends, it shows itself to be a portrait of teen life as deep as it is wide. You don’t have to believe that, but it’d be a lot cooler if you did.
6. The Breakfast Club
Herman: The pop culture machine has flattened The Breakfast Club’s constituent members into the archetypes they fit on the surface: queen bee, burnout, athlete … you know the rest. But the point of John Hughes’s best feature—yeah, I said it—is that teenagers are so much more than the socially constructed boxes they’re placed into. If only they all had a daylong detention to force them to get to know each other. The Breakfast Club is a fantasy of connection, and even the film itself seems to know it’s a fantasy; no one really thinks Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson are in it for the long haul. Still, it directly channels that most profound and unachievable of teenage desires: setting aside labels and forcing your peers to see the humanity within. However out of touch its group dynamics feel in the age of texting and Snapchat, that yearning remains eternal.
5. Lady Bird
Surrey: When the biggest controversy surrounding your film is that one critic ruined its 100 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, you did good. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird captures one teenager’s senior year of high school in a compact, 95-minute film. Somehow, while Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) deals with friendship, her sexuality, college applications, and a complicated relationship with her mom (Laurie Metcalf, robbed of an Oscar), the film also subtly weaves in post-9/11 anxieties, the Iraq War, and the financial stress on the teenager’s middle-class family. Somehow, a surprisingly dense narrative doesn’t short-change the memorable supporting cast of high schoolers, like Lady Bird’s BFF Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and her pair of ex-boyfriends, the meek Danny (Lucas Hedges) and the Howard Zinn–loving douchelord Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). Somehow, it’ll have you yearning for Dave Matthews Band.
The film’s truncated run time is enough to relay the heart of the movie. Slowly but surely, Lady Bird learns to really look at the people around her and the city she grew up in that she so desperately claimed to hate. By the time she’s attending college in New York, she yearns for Sacramento, calls her mom, and finally grows comfortable with her own name. Catherine comes of age in this near-perfect film, and that’s hella tight.
4. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ryan: That suspended moment. When you care so deeply, yet don’t seem to have a care in the world. High school is winding down, you’re with the best friends you’ll ever have, and deep down you know everything is about to change forever. That’s where we find iconoclastic suburban Chicago high schooler Ferris Bueller; his girlfriend, Sloane; and his best friend, Cameron, as they fake sick, cut loose, “borrow” a ’61 Ferrari, eat well, absorb culture, scam adults, crash parades, and generally act like sausage kings of Chicago, all while trying to distract from the fact that they’ve arrived at a crossroads in their lives. Featuring one of the best soundtracks of the decade (there’s a lot of competition) and a star-making performance from Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off imagines playing hooky as a Fellini day dream—one you want to go back to, over and over again.
3. Mean Girls
Dobbins: The archetypal teenage villain; the complex sociological web; the star who peaked too soon; the slightly bitter aftertaste—if there is a neater summation of high school’s everlasting perils, I have not seen it. Released in 2004, at the dawn of the internet and the earliest years of millennial expression, Tina Fey’s Mean Girls has become a definitive text for the internet generation, quoted and memed into a classic. The entire adult experience—not just high school—can be (and often is) explained through the lens of Plastics and Burn Books, mathletes and spring flings. Mean Girls, it turns out, is a practical guide for making your way through a stratified world, and also for knowing which day to wear pink. It is a necessary, if harsh, lesson that the fetches of life are never going to happen. And it is a reminder that the Regina Georges of the world are only ever as powerful as their supporters. In high school movies, at least.
Gruttadaro: “There were no movies that were really capturing what we were experiencing,” Seth Rogen told me in 2017. “So we wrote one, basically.” Before Superbad, the high school movie had laid somewhat dormant; the genre was in dire need of a reboot after it had been stretched to infinity (and then aptly parodied) by a run of films in the late ’90s. Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, did just that, breathing new life into the high school movie with sheer authenticity. The way their main trio of characters (played by Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) talked, the things they talked about, was uncannily reflective of many viewers’ actual high school experiences. Gone were the choreographed, Usher-led dance sequences and the much-too-old actors playing students—in their place were scenes in home-ec class, expertly crafted dick jokes, and actors who hadn’t yet grown into their own bodies. And underneath it all was a truly affecting story about friendship, and the utter fear that sets in as high school ends and a new chapter begins.
Litman: Cher Horowitz was right: With its quick cuts and camera-flash effect, the first scene of Clueless does, in fact, resemble a Noxzema commercial. But no one would confuse the bright, lush colors of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 masterpiece for a commercial attempt to project normality. Cher’s charmingly warped view of the world is stated in the first minute, and from there the delightful phantasmagoria of Clueless never lets up. Based on Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless initially draws the audience in with its plucky heroine, which is the best tribute to Jane Austen possible. Its staying power is a result of a more complex alchemy. It has all the hallmarks of a teen movie: a memorable lunch scene (“Tai, my birthday is in April …”), a rapid and impressive makeover (“I hope not sporadically!”), unrequited love (“Oh God. They’re playing our song”), a charming best friend (“And right before the yearbook pictures? What am I going to tell my grandchildren?”), and a major love epiphany (“I am totally, majorly, but crazy in love with Josh!”).
Clueless is perfect, though these teens are not like everyone else, even if their emotions and problems are similar. They speak in a vernacular, their clothes and cars are far nicer, and their school is more akin to a playground than anything else. The most impressive feat of Clueless, however, is that its divorce from reality allowed it to become the foundational treatise on everything from popularity to the adolescent intuition that life after high school will be more exciting but saddled with responsibility. In conclusion, Clueless gets it right.