High School Movies

So, Like, What is it About High School Movies?

Michael Prescott on the enduring influence and popularity of the High School movie.

The Breakfast Club has a lot to answer for. Not content with its own flaws, we’ve had to put up with these projected onto every attempted imitation in the thirty years since, the latest reincarnation of which is the as-bad-as-the-title-suggests, The DUFF. Originally my hopes were high – it was, after all, labelled ‘The first laugh-out-loud high school comedy since Easy A’ by the usually reliable Digital Spy, and other positive reviews seemed to reinforce that opinion. The film itself, however, doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going, crammed as it is with meaningless scattergun references. When it isn’t squeezing as many social media platforms into a single sentence as it can for the kids, it’s inexplicably namedropping the likes of Bela Lugosi for any plus-ones or independent cinema-goers who may have wandered into the wrong screen. It’s soon apparent that this film is so desperate for an audience that it doesn’t know precisely just who that is supposed to be, and the problems don’t end there.

The premise in and of itself is problematic: D.U.F.F stands for ‘designated, ugly, fat friend’, a horribly on-the-nose attempt to garner sympathy for its protagonist from the get-go without doing a thing to earn it, screaming ‘pity me!’ at every turn. Moreover, whilst Mae Whitman is very talented (her résumé includes Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim vs the World and The Perks of Being a Wallflower), neither she nor her central character Bianca Piper is anything of the sort. She is pretty on the outside with a bubbly personality to match, and there is simply nothing to suggest why she would be considered in the least bit unattractive. Whitman has been almost universally commended for her performance here, but while she and Robbie Amell are solid – warm and engaging screen presences both – the script simply prevents them being much more. They work well with what they’re given and get more out of it than many might, but this isn’t a water-into-wine performance from either lead.

Perhaps the single most irritating thing contained within The DUFF is its paper-thin characters, devised knowingly but executed terribly. Recent genre-savvy creations such as G.B.F have also deliberately done this but with more nous. The DUFF struggles in this regard – instead reminding us that as much as it tries to be The Breakfast Club, it really isn’t – and it should strive to serve up more than one-dimensional characters with their accompanying clichés as it’s a tired genre format more suited to children’s icons be it Power Rangers or Spice Girls.

This idea has been prevalent since 1985, though not assembled as masterfully as the majority claim. The Breakfast Club may have celebrated its 30th anniversary just a couple of months ago, but whilst John Hughes’ seminal film of teenage angst, repression and identity pretends to preach togetherness and acceptance via revelling in not-so-dissimilar-difference, it does nothing of the sort. The Breakfast Club has masqueraded in [unsuccessful] irony for too long and should instead be exposed for the rather lazy, ugly film that it actually is. Last month, The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin wrote – in his feature entitled ‘Will there ever be another John Hughes?’ – of how the filmmaker ‘never patronised his characters’. This may (or may not) be true, but he certainly did so of his audience. The Breakfast Club sees suicide used at the drop of a hat as a convenient plot device (which, coincidentally enough, many have recently – in my view incorrectly – accused Game of Thrones of doing with rape) and its sexual politics and practices, much like Hughes’ other films (see Sixteen Candles for instance), are at best clumsy and are at worst offensive and unpleasant. Collin, like many, characterises TBC as a ‘wholesale rejection of those worn-out tropes’ when it comes to character clichés, though its inability to balance male and female empowerment in those self-same characters is a significantly troubling one.

It is a film which idolises the idea of certain [male] characters doing whatever they want to, regardless of protestations from others. In this sense, it is all Bart Simpson and no Lisa. This might in fact sound more reminiscent of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – and it’s true that this rebellious streak so keenly offered by Hughes through his many teenage tearaways is apparent across many of his films, including Ferris – but it just about manages to reel itself in to remain on the right side of edgy. It has enough sincerity and offers up timely injections of pathos to make it a genuine masterpiece of the genre (with the museum scene scored by ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ is the emotional centrepiece of the whole film, and precisely the reason why it works quite so well). The Breakfast Club, released a year prior to Ferris, is rougher around the edges: ultimately it is poorly written in terms of creating drama appropriately or using characters effectively. Though it is intended as a playful attempt to parody character constructions, it has no coherent idea of how to solve the problems of its own five protagonists, specifically Judd Nelson’s Bender.

It’s a film fondly remembered by a generation who had little else to root for in the 1980s, both inside and outside of the high-school comedy sub-genre. But, propelled to greater heights by the success of Ferris, Heathers and others, the end of the decade would soon see a turning of the tide. The mid-nineties through to mid-noughties would give us thee of the all-time greats of the sub-genre; films that are all-at-once brilliantly honest and wildly satirical. Clueless (1995) changed the game so significantly that Charlie Lyne’s coming-of-age documentary from last year, titled Beyond Clueless, looks at the films and the movement that Amy Heckerling’s film helped to spawn, including 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and  Mean Girls (2004).

The three films have much in common – fierce female leads and dreamy male counterparts played by rising stars, memorable soundtracks and an attitude to match, and introducing self-styled expressions to the genre’s lexicon at every turn – but all of these genre models stem from the hugely influential Clueless. It captured the imagination of a generation with a deliberately inward-looking style, characterised by the tone of its offbeat humour and large dollops of acute self-awareness. 10TIHAY followed that up in the form of a faux-rebellion: instead of revelling in the glory of hilarious high-school bickering and fashion politics, it introduced characters who wanted no part of it and therefore added to the rules of the game in the process. Whereas Clueless opens with ‘Kids in America’, 10TIHAY announces the arrival of Kat Stratford and co via ‘Bad Reputation’ – a song that would be reused in Easy A as a cue to the audience, before The DUFF clumsily repeated it to little effect.

The two films do share one other noticeable trait, that being their origins: both are based on the works of literary greats, with Clueless being loosely constructed from Jane Austen’s Emma and 10TIHAY adapted from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. As for the third part of the teen triangle, enter: Tina Fey. Mean Girls, even more so in retrospect, was a perfect storm of past, present and future female talent. Lindsay Lohan was at the peak of her very brief pre-meltdown powers which she’d developed in films like The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday, whereas delightful antihero Regina George was a breakthrough role for the wonderful Rachel McAdams, who has since conquered rom-coms (The Notebook, Wedding Crashers, The Time Traveller’s Wife, About Time) as well as branching out to work with many auteurs such as Terence Malick and Woody Allen. Fey, on the other hand, had earned good faith for her Saturday Night Live credits and brought this razor-sharp wit to the screenplay. And it’s no coincidence that all three films were definitively concerned with the writing rather than the directing (all three directors went on to do very little subsequently, with Mean Girls’ Mark Waters having the most success, albeit limited, with films like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Mr Popper’s Penguins).

What these series of hits did differently from The Breakfast Club is tangible. Firstly, TBC undoubtedly made female characters part of the equation, but Clueless and co made them the focus. They were pushed to the forefront by clued-in female voices with influence (significantly, all three films were penned by women), whereas Hughes’ struggle to write for these characters and adequately convey their viewpoints is clear to see. TBC fails to handle them on page or screen, whereas Cher, Kat and Regina have been moulded into iconic mainstays of teen cinema. Secondly, The Breakfast Club – in its supposed character revaluation – attempts to re-write the old rules about teenagers on film. The 90s-to-noughties trio are about writing new ones. They create new arguments, associations and attitudes related to language, fashion, food, family, dating and social activities to name a few. Mean Girls didn’t just nail what it was to be Plastic; it also told us what it was to be ‘fetch’ (way to go, Gretchen) and indefinitely colour-coded our costumes for Wednesdays. Clueless gave us a protagonist who was proud of her virgin status and reminded us that you can be fashion-conscious and a Hamlet buff all-at-once, whilst 10TIHAY acquainted us with angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion and we welcomed it with open arms.

Clueless is the introduction to these new rules via a likeable protagonist who has helped to form them in her enviable position of top-of-the-high-school-food-chain queen; 10TIHAY is a playful, attempted narrative rejection of such rules as we turn our attentions from thinking it’s about Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Cameron to realising it’s really looking at outsiders Patrick and Kat, specifically the latter. Interestingly the film cast the unknown Larisa Oleynik as Bianca, a carbon copy of Cher/Alicia Silverstone in the looks department, but its rejection of her as a central character characterises both its debt – and movement away from – the hugely important Clueless which came four years prior. Finally, Mean Girls is an attempted (but intentionally failed) avoidance of these updated rules as we come full-circle and see things through the eyes of new girl in a new world, Cady Heron, who ultimately falls into the traps and pitfalls of all things Plastic and inconsequential, much like Clueless’ Tai (Brittany Murphy).

The Breakfast Club’s supposed strengths are also its weakness: its three rivals do not claim a subtext of breaking down genre barriers; they just go ahead and do it. Clueless, 10TIHAY and Mean Girls readdress the gender balance and flesh out characters in a way that TBC could only dream of, and this is in part due to the fact that they play up comedy whereas The Breakfast Club misguidedly concentrates on dramatics. These films are about friendship and females but they never forget to be funny, and this comedy often disguises the themes lurking beneath the surface, rendering them even subtler in their perceptions than one might initially imagine.

There are a couple of films which merit a brief mention in the discussion here, most notably Election (1999) and Easy A (2010). The former is Alexander Payne’s brilliant political satire and features Reese Witherspoon as another memorable high-school girl in Tracy Flick, with Matthew Broderick going full-Ferris-turned-Rooney and taking on the role of downbeat, dejected principal in this instance. As good as the film is – and whilst there is a certain amount of crossover with the others of this same period – its intentions are related to mocking the wider world (and it is in fact based on a true story) rather than directing its focus interiorly to the sub-genre of high-school films. Easy A, on the other hand, does just that. Coming six years after Mean Girls, we were overdue another excellent teen film. However, there is a reluctance to categorise it in the same ballpark as the preceding three, but this is more to do with how impressive it is deemed to be (or not be, despite its appeal) rather than its relevance. In fact, the film explicitly references films like The Breakfast Club, directors like John Hughes and the whole sub-genre, with Emma Stone fronting a film that is packed with post-modern love for high-school films.

So why isn’t it deemed to be as good as the three or four that came before it? There is no shortage of individuals ready to champion The Breakfast Club, but whereas Easy A is enjoyed and to an extent admired, any conversation surrounding it is always loaded with linguistic precautions. We are afraid of declaring it a great film, or from comparing it to those mentioned above unless it is to state words to the effect of ‘it’s not quite Mean Girls‘ with the Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus (‘it owes a huge debt to older (and better) teen comedies, but…’) proving the point rather well.

Perhaps it is a little too explicit in its backward-gazing outlook to be considered quite as groundbreaking as the few that came before it, but we shouldn’t underestimate Easy A. Other films may have introduced us to Emma Stone, but this film made a star of her. It features suitably eccentric supporting characters Stanley Tucci’s Dill and Patricia Clarkson’s Rosemary – some of the best screen parents we’ve seen this century, for my money – and the rest of the cast is bursting with talent in the respective forms of Lisa Kudrow, Thomas Haden Church, Malcolm McDowell and up-and-comer Penn Badgley. It embraces sexual freedom and societal diversity more than most, just as we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the movie. Easy A may or may not quite reach the perfect heights of the near-perfect on and off-screen females that came not long before it, but it’s a whole lot better than The Breakfast Club.