There’s a lot to love about high school movies, but perhaps the thing that makes them so comforting and so easy to fall for is how firmly established their format is. Everyone has a role to play—as Emilio Estevez so helpfully outlined at the end of The Breakfast Club, there’s always the nerd, the jock, the outcast, the popular girl, and the burnout. There are, of course, other archetypes that exist within the high school movie ecosystem, but the point is, each and every one of them is clearly defined and understood by the audience. With that in mind, we asked staffers at The Ringer to build their ideal high school cast by selecting archetypes from the genre and then picking characters who they believe fill them the best. Principal Vernon may have been crazy to see the Breakfast Club in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions, but the high school movie has been teaching us to do just that for decades, so why not have some fun with it?
The Wannabe Anarchist: Kyle, Lady Bird
The Actual Anarchist: J.D. Dean, Heathers
The Soulful Jock: Peter Kavinsky, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
The Dumb Jock: Steve Stifler, American Pie
The Popular Girl(s): The Plastics, Mean Girls
The Nerd Who Fucks: McLovin, Superbad
The Girl With Telekinetic Powers Everyone Should Be Nice To: Carrie White, Carrie
The Extremely Horny Band Geek: Michelle Flaherty, American Pie
The Guy Who’s Way Too Old to Be Hanging Out With High Schoolers: Wooderson, Dazed and Confused
My High School Crush: Lady Bird, Lady Bird
Reflecting on so many great high school movies past and present, what stands out isn’t their respective plots, it’s their characters. The funny ones (McLovin, Stifler), weird ones (Carrie, J.D.), and relatable ones (get your freak on at band camp, Michelle!) are all heightened versions of people you’ve definitely hung out with—or purposefully avoided—in the cafeteria. Feeling wistful for acne, endless cross-country meets, and emotionally devastating rejections from Lady Bird types—the power of cinema!
I don’t know how this mishmash of archetypes would work within the same hypothetical high school, but I’ve no doubt J.D. would slap A People’s History of the United States out of Kyle Scheible’s douchey hands; David Wooderson and McLovin would become best friends; Peter Kavinsky and Stifler would be the Jordan and Pippen of high school lacrosse; and, eventually, Carrie would incinerate them all on prom night after the Plastics took things too far.
The Popular Girl: Regina George, Mean Girls
The Other Popular Girl: Claire Standish, The Breakfast Club
The Jock: Lance Harbor, Varsity Blues
The Jock Who’d Rather Do Other Things: Jonathan Moxon, Varsity Blues
The Stoner: Travis Birkenstock, Clueless
The Loser Who Desperately Wants to Be Popular: Seth, Superbad
The Hot-But-Secretly-Deep Guy: Peter Kavinsky, To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved Before
The Drama Kid: Julie Steffans, Lady Bird
The Girl Who Becomes Super Hot Merely by Removing Her Glasses: Laney Boggs, She’s All That
The Student Who’s Obviously Way Too Old to Be a Student: Greg Jenko, 21 Jump Street
Admittedly, I have no idea what this movie would be about—I just love imagining a high school filled by the teen(ish) versions of Rachel McAdams, Molly Ringwald, Paul Walker, James Van Der Beek, Breckin Meyer, Jonah Hill, Noah Centineo, Beanie Feldstein (Jonah’s sister!), Rachael Leigh Cook, and Channing Tatum. That right there is a good yearbook.
I do truly believe a few things about this group, though: That Regina George would still easily rule over this fictional high school, and find a way to make the affluent Claire Standish feel poor; that Peter Kavinsky and Julie Steffans would hook up at a cast party; and that removing one’s glasses is still the most effective way to reveal one’s true hotness.
The Uncomfortable Outsiders: Viola, She’s the Man, and Seth, Superbad
The Cool Kid Who’s Hard on the Outside but Soft on the Inside: Patrick Verona, 10 Things I Hate About You
The Dreamy Love Interest: Peter Kavinsky, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before
The Sidekick: Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The Flawed but Loving Dad: Jim Baker, Sixteen Candles
The External Agent of Chaos: Wooderson, Dazed and Confused
The Villain: Regina George, Mean Girls
The two anchors of this cast—Viola and Seth—comprise one of the best comedic actresses of her era at the peak of her powers, Amanda Bynes, and the hysterical performance that kicked off Jonah Hill’s career. To support them: Patrick Verona and Peter Kavinsky, the two most charming teenage boys ever depicted on film, and Cameron Frye, my favorite character in any high school movie. (All this time later I have no idea how Alan Ruck didn’t have Tom Hanks’s career.) And because no high school movie ever takes place entirely within a high school, I’m casting Paul Dooley’s Jim Baker as the dad who dispenses advice (Paul Dooley’s great, I wish he were my real dad), and Wooderson from Dazed and Confused as the one who drops one-liners and hits on teenagers. Finally, whatever obstacles Seth and Viola have to overcome, Regina George will set them in motion. Because of course she will.
The Endearingly Weird Girl Protagonist: Tai, Clueless
The Hot-but-Secretly-Deep Guy: Patrick Verona, 10 Things I Hate About You
The Gay Best Friend Who Might Also Be Boning the Heartthrob but It’s Subtext Because This Is a Movie From the 1950s: Plato Crawford, Rebel Without a Cause
The Grizzled but Wise Teacher: Mr. Bruner, The Edge of Seventeen
It’s Stupid That the Gay Best Friend Never Gets a Love Interest, So Let’s Give Him a Really Sweet One: Danny O’Neill, Lady Bird
First of all, let me say that I didn’t intend to cast this movie with mostly actors who died tragically young, but once I realized that’s what I was doing I had already gone overboard. Baby, I’m sorry. (I’m not sorry.) I have always loved movies where the weird girl ends up with the sensitive heartthrob (WOW, SHOCKER) and there are few better embodiments of these archetypes than Brittany Murphy’s Tai and Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona. I ship it. I am also a big Rebel Without a Cause person so let’s get the ur-Duckie Sal Mineo in there, except let’s give him a happy ending this time and set him up with Lucas Hedges’s theater geek from Lady Bird. And because you always need a teacher with lots of wisdom and questionable personal boundaries (and also because not enough people saw The Edge of Seventeen, one of the best teen movies of recent vintage), let’s cast Woody Harrelson as the disgruntled educator who always seems a little bit hungover. Lastly, because I’ve given myself the liberty to staff this film from the beyond, Nicholas Ray will direct this movie while wearing an eye patch.
The Good Girl Gone Bad: Tracy Freeland, Thirteen
The Student Who’s Obviously Way Too Old to Be a Student: Regina George, Mean Girls
The Flawed Heartthrob: Mike O’Donnell, 17 Again
Jesus Christ This Is a Character From a High School Movie?: Donnie Darko, Donnie Darko
The Endearing Everymen: Seth and Evan, Superbad
While the Jock, the Nerd, and the Popular Girl are celebrated high school movie archetypes for a reason, I’d like to take this time to highlight three other archetypes that, while lesser known, are just as essential to the genre. There’s the one perhaps most famously portrayed by the late Luke Perry in 90210, the Student Who’s Obviously Way Too Old to Be a Student, and perfected on film by Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls. There’s the Good Girl Gone Bad—on display in Thirteen—in which a nice, normal teenager gets a whiff of popularity, and maybe marijuana, and turns into an adolescent wrecking ball and terror to all parents. And then there’s the Everyman, a combination of several sub-archetypes (the Underdog, the Horny Teen Boy, the Class Clown). This type of character is the glue between all other types of characters—and he’s the one who’s most likely to remind you of someone you went to high school with.
The Queen Bee: Regina George, Mean Girls
The Kid Who Won’t Stop Drawing Penises: Seth, Superbad
The Socially Conscious Drug Dealer: Eric Molson, 21 Jump Street
The Windsock (also the Kid With the Car): Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The Kid With the Fake ID: McLovin, Superbad
The Girl Who Doesn’t Know She’s Pretty: Hilary Duff, A Cinderella Story
High school is not complete without the kid who draws dicks, and Seth’s explaining his “Ghostbusters lunchbox dick treasure chest” is the best monologue since Shakespeare plagiarized Hamlet. But high school isn’t just about drawing dicks. It’s also about drugs. Enter 21 Jump Street’s Eric Molson, portrayed by Dave Franco’s jawline. Eric has a good plug—his product speaks for itself—and he’s an upstanding citizen to boot. He got into Berkeley “early admish,” strums on his guitar (“Mother earth is dyinnggg”), runs his car on recycled frying oil, believes “organized sports are so fascist it makes me sick,” and tells another drug dealer who doesn’t trust strangers that “everyone’s a stranger until you give them a chance.” He definitely gets push notifications for when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez goes live on Instagram. Lastly, we need a windsock, the friend who goes wherever the wind blows. These people put too much pressure on themselves to make their own decisions, and there is no bigger windsock than Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. To quote Ferris Bueller himself, “If you stuck a lump of coal up Cameron’s ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.” You could also get a diamond by sticking this group in the same high school.
The Didn’t He Graduate Last Year Guy: Wooderson, Dazed and Confused and Cam McNeely, Can’t Hardly Wait
The Queen Bees: Torrance Shipman, Bring It On and Kristin Cavallari, Laguna Beach
The Late Bloomer: Sam, American Vandal
The Preppy Ones: The hockey team from D3: The Mighty Ducks
The Hardnosed, Secretly Vulnerable Best Friend: Rizzo, Grease
The Nerd: William Lichter, Can’t Hardly Wait
The Teacher: Ms. Ginny Stroud, Dazed and Confused
My film, titled Shoulda, celebrates the high school movie through the perspective of arguably the genre’s most important archetype: the Didn’t He Graduate Last Year Guy. Revolving around two once-proud has-beens (Can’t Hardly Wait’s Trip McNeely and Dazed and Confused’s David Wooderson) who are now aging roommates in a composite midtier Sun Belt city, Shoulda tells the story of the tall tales we tell each other—and the lies we tell ourselves.
Through a combination of flashbacks to the two dudes’ glory days and glimpses into the high school horrors of present day Gen Z, Shoulda features an elite cast of all the people who either cruelly shunned you from their lunch table or were frozen out from yours. (As we all know, there has never been a middle ground.) Laguna Beach–era Kristin Cavallari and Bring It On’s Torrance Shipman play the two men’s teenage daughters who also happen to be rival teen queen bees. (Because the lines between “movie” and “TV show” and “iconic SoCal reality masterpiece” are increasingly fluent and contingent these days, so too was Shoulda’s casting process.)
And without giving too much away, the movie also features American Vandal’s Sam as The Late Bloomer Whom You’ll Regret Friendzoning One Day; the entire prep school varsity hockey team from D3: The Mighty Ducks as themselves; Rizzo from Grease as the best friend whose wisecracking exterior hides her deep vulnerabilities; Amber from Clueless and the The Beer Has Gone Bad, Nobody Drink The Beer Guy from Can’t Hardly Wait in uncredited cameos that involve them saying “she could be a farmer in those clothes” and “the beer has gone bad, nobody drink the beer;” and best for last: the GOAT High School Movie teacher, Ms. Ginny fuckin’ Stroud.
The Funny, Smart, “Unpopular” Girl: Bianca Piper, The DUFF
The Best Friend: Krista, The Edge of Seventeen
The Bad Boy: Kyle, Lady Bird
The Sensitive Nice Guy: Lloyd Dobler, Say Anything
The Mean Girl: Natalie V. Adams, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
The Teacher Who Has No Time for This Shit: Mr. Griffith, Easy A
Did anyone but me see The DUFF? Quite possibly not, which is why I feel it’s my duty to cast the fabulous Mae Whitman, who plays the titular and wildly offensive “DUFF”—a.k.a. “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Bianca, Whitman’s character, is obviously none of those things, and shines in the (surprisingly fun!) movie despite the inaccurate title. Joining her in my own special high school movie are Haley Lu Richardson’s Krista from Edge of Seventeen, Timothée Chalamet’s Kyle from Lady Bird (you know you want to see Mae Whitman shut him down), Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything (it’s only weird if you think of John Cusack at his current age, so, like, don’t), Brie Larson’s character from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and as the long-suffering teacher, Thomas Haden Church’s iconic Mr. Griffith from Easy A. Does this cast make any sense? No! Luckily, rom-coms don’t have to make a lick of sense to end up on Netflix these days. I assume this would be a smash hit, even without Noah Centineo.