Sometime in the 1980’s the film industry realized that high school films were a genre unto themselves. The unique combination of memorable characters, quotable lines, and relatable situations has helped these films carve out a special place in our collective pop culture consciousness. If you are old enough to remember the 1980’s as they evolved, your collection of one-liners has grown and grown as the years have passed.
So here is a look at some of the high school films that have left an indelible impact on our lives— from the way we see people around us to a chuckle in the breakroom at work. And a quick note before we take the journey: they are in no particular order. Just about everyone you know thinks one of these is the best high school movie ever.
We think they’re all great.
When Jane Austin wrote Emma and published it back in 1815, it is not clear why she disguised Cher Horowitz, Tai Frasier, and Josh Lucas as Emma Woodhouse, Harriet Smith, and George Knightley, respectively. Amy Heckerling’s second iconic high school film (read on to find her first), “Clueless” is a loose adaptation of the novel and accomplished the dual goals of creating relatable characters while also immersing audiences in a beautiful and fanciful upper-crust teen world. Its unmistakable fashion, its wildly likeable characters, and its unique innocence has kept us Rollin’ with the Homies since the film’s release in 1995.
Cher: Tai, how old are you?
Tai: I’ll be 16 in May.
Cher: My birthday is in April and as someone older, can I please give you some advice? It is one thing to spark up a doobie and get laced at parties, but it is quite another to be fried all day.
Popping a ham and cheese in the microwave or feasting on a turbo dog is the end of the innocence in the 1988 film “Heathers.” Dark, brooding, and wildly funny at the same time, the film takes inter-clique teenage rivalries, freebases them, and then welcomes you in to see the damage through the eyes of Veronica Sawyer. Christian Slater’s J.D. is absolutely captivating, and is also a complete psychopath. The film has aged remarkably well, and it is still hard to pass it by if you see it playing on cable television on Saturday afternoon. And what was the deal with Veronica wearing the monocle to write in her diary? How very.
J.D.: Is your life perfect?
Veronica Sawyer: I’m on my way to a party at Remington University… No, my life’s not perfect. I don’t really like my friends.
J.D.: I… I don’t really like your friends either.
Veronica Sawyer: Well, it’s just like – they’re people I work with, and our job is being popular and sh*t.
J.D.: Maybe it’s time to take a vacation.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
“Dazed and Confused” is a remarkable piece of film, and it is just as much a remarkable piece of work on the part of the casting director. Adam Goldberg, Parker Posey, Milla Jojovich, Ben Affleck, and Matthew McConaughey all make wide-eyed early film appearances in the 1993 classic, making this film as much a time capsule of American film as it is a snapshot of the last day of school in 1976 in Austin, TX. The film has a lot of weed, some amazing cars, and one of the greatest film soundtracks in history in addition to a story that anyone can relate to— especially if you went to high school in a one horse town, drinking beer by the moonlight, making the most out of every moment.
Wooderson: Man, it’s the same bullsh*t they tried to pull in my day. If it ain’t that piece of paper, there’s some other choice they’re gonna try and make for you. You gotta do what Randall Pink Floyd wants to do man. Let me tell you this, the older you do get the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’ man, L-I-V-I-N.
Mean Girls (2004)
The Plastics. They would have destroyed the whole school had it not been for Tina Fey’s lecture on “girl-on-girl violence.” In some ways, “Mean Girls” is “Heathers” without the explosions in an absolutely bleak high school world, but it has its own unique personality. Lindsay Lohan is superb as the home schooled Caty (it’s pronounced “Katie” she explains) who brings her naiveté to a cutthroat suburban Chicago high school. Quickly, she is hip deep in the Plastics, a hated clique of girls superbly played by Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, and Lacey Chabert. On first viewing it’s funny, but it gets better and better over time. Watch as Damien and Janice angrily drive from Caty’s party: Damien yelling “I want my pink shirt back!” is just one tiny treasure that gets lost.
Karen: What? He’s a good kisser.
Gretchen: He’s your cousin.
Karen: Yeah, but he’s my first cousin.
Karen: So, you have your cousins, and then you have your first cousins, and then you have your second cousins…
Gretchen: No, honey, uh-uh.
Karen: That’s not right, is it?
Gretchen: That is so not right.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
In some ways, this film is the gold standard of high school angst films. “The Breakfast Club” is beautiful in its simplicity, driven by a stellar ensemble performance by some of the best young actors that film has ever seen. John Hughes’ screenplay channels the teen mind at a near whisperer level, and the film’s characters still resonate more than three decades later. Every one of us knew every one of those characters in the film, and in some small way we found out that each of us is the brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.
Andrew: What happened to you?
Allison Reynolds: Why? Claire did it… What’s wrong?
Andrew: Nothing’s wrong… it’s just so different, you know? I can see your face.
Allison Reynolds: Is that good or bad?
Andrew: It’s good.
Say Anything (1989)
In 1989 Cameron Crowe made his directorial debut with “Say Anything,” an endearing love story that is absolutely memorable with one image: John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler holding that boom box aloft, blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in an attempt to win back Ione Skye’s Diane Court. The film gives teens a depth that gets lost in many other high school stories, as Cusack’s Dobler and Skye’s Court are forced to deal with adult problems just as they are also trying to figure out the life they have before them. Early cameo: look for Jeremy Piven drinking beer at the Gas and Sip.
D.C.: Lloyd, why do you have to be like this?
Lloyd Dobler: ‘Cause I’m a guy. I have pride.
Corey Flood: You’re not a guy.
Lloyd Dobler: I am.
Corey Flood: No. The world is full of guys. Be a man. Don’t be a guy.
Weird Science (1985)
Okay, it’s derivative. Yep, it’s raunchy. Sure, it’s not even remotely rooted in realty. But who cares? “Weird Science” remains a classic, and Bill Paxton’s Chet is one of the creepiest big brothers ever. When Anthony Michael-Hall’s Gary and Ilan Mitchell-Smith’s Wyatt decide to build Kelly LeBrock on their computer, fine cinema is sure to follow. From their night at the Kandy Bar where Gary regales his new friends with his eighth grade romance to Wyatt’s grandparents frozen in the kitchen pantry, this film is one of the quotable icons of high school film.
Garry: We’re in.
Wyatt: We’re in trouble Gary. This is highly illegal.
Garry: We need more input. We gotta fill this thing up with data. We gotta make her as real as possible, Wyatt. I want her to live. I want her to breathe. I want her to aerobicize.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
Yes, it’s the third John Hughes film in this list (The Breakfast Club, Weird Science), but “Sixteen Candles” has its own special place on the Mount Rushmore of high school films. The film is full throttle funny all the way through, but for teen girls the movie tells a story that few other films are able to crystallize. Molly Ringwald’s Sam Baker is growing up, and she’s interested in more grown up things like the BMOC Jake Ryan. However, her family still sees her as a little girl, leading to a series of humiliations that while funny also make Sam an endearing and sympathetic character. And for teen-aged girls who pined for that special guy in school? The last two minutes are simply unforgettable.
Samantha: Thanks for getting my undies back.
Jake: Thanks for coming over.
Samantha: Thanks for coming to get me.
Jake: Happy Birthday, Samantha. Make a wish.
Samantha: It already came true.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
The party scene is a well-worn device in high school films. It generally puts all the characters in one place and can help move a plot along. They’re also a lot of fun. So why not make the whole movie just one big party? Deborah Kaplan’s “Can’t Hardly Wait” places almost the entire story except for a bit of up-front exposition at a raging graduation party, and the result is glorious. Ethan Embry’s Preston Meyers is completely likeable (though somewhat obsessive) and you find yourself pulling for him. Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Amanda Beckett is a high school hottie with a heart, and you spend the film hoping she reads Preston’s letter. A bit of business with Preston and Jenna Elfman as an angel/stripper is as good as it gets— and train station scene will give you the feels every time. She writes him a letter for every day he’s away.
Angel Stripper: Fate. There is fate. But it only takes you so far, because once you’re there, it’s up to you to make it happen.
Preston: You are so definitely right.
Angel Stripper: Yeah. So look, don’t make the same mistake I did, okay? Because if you really want to be with him, then you get back on that phone and you call Barry Manilow, and you tell him how you feel.
Preston: No… no. I don’t want him. I just…
Angel Stripper: It’s okay. Look at me… Scott Baio. We all have our things.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
This list is bookended by Amy Heckerling’s first important high school film: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Written by Cameron Crowe, the film is at the nexus of the high school film universe with two power players behind the camera. In many ways, the film is patient zero for the entire genre, with a universe of characters that are entirely unique and universally memorable. The film includes a staggering list of when-they-were-young stars including Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, and Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli. Look closely for minor roles played by Nicholas Cage (credited as Nicholas Coppola) as one of Brad’s co-workers and Taylor Negron as the pizza guy in Mr. Hand’s classroom. For as fun as the film is, it does a remarkable job of exploring the realities of high school: the insecurities, the sexual pressure, and the volatile relationships. Sean Penn gets most of the jokes, and there is one shot that is often missed: the look of complete satisfaction as Spicoli realizes that his plan to cover up wrecking Jefferson’s car has motivated the star football player to dominate against Lincoln High. In that cut shot of him in the stands, it is the moment when the stoner guy goes from two steps behind everyone to light years ahead, and it is deliciously satisfying.
Stacy Hamilton: Linda, I finally figured it out. I don’t want sex. Anyone can have sex.
Linda Barrett: Yeah, Stacy? What do you want?
Stacy Hamilton: I want a relationship. I want romance.
Linda Barrett: You want romance? In Ridgemont? We can’t even get cable TV here, Stacy, and you want romance!