The high school flick — arguably a staple of American pop culture — is familiar to us in many forms. We have all seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Clueless or more recent films like Mean Girls and Easy A. However, despite its ubiquity, or perhaps, because of its ubiquity, the high school movie is regrettably overlooked as a serious genre. I say regrettably because as I get older I realize just how profoundly these high school movies have affected me. And, I suspect, have affected all of us.
These are the films that stay with you. Their influence sticks and never quite fades. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what it is that makes them so memorable. Maybe it’s that, no matter how hard we try, we can never fully forget what it was like to be in high school. Or, more likely, it’s because we — as teenagers searching for a way to define ourselves — look to film more than we might at other times in our lives.
Personally, I know that will never forget the image of Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller twisting and shouting on top of a float. He was, and is, coolness personified. He will forever embody all that I hoped to be in high school (and somewhere deep down probably still aspire to … ).
The high school films, the good ones, make the most of what I will reluctantly call our youthful ‘impressionability’ — but I use the word robbed of its negative connotation. At fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen-years-old we are inspired by these movies perhaps more willingly and easily than at twenty-one.
These movies form and create the iconography of our lives. The standards by which will always measure coolness, gawkiness or rebelliousness.
The high school movie is also great because it captures the absolute rawness of human interaction. I’m thinking of one particular scene in Mean Girls where Cady (Lindsay Lohan) imagines all of her classmates as animals. The local mall transforms into the Serengeti, and her classmates into wild animals on the prowl — hunting and being hunted. I find this comparison to be an astute one, because high school is often like a zoo. A small enclosed space where basic human emotions play out, sometimes in their most violent forms. High school is the lieu of catfights, of fistfights, of first loves and first breakups.
One of the best high school films out there that plays upon this primitive side to teenage hood, and my pick for this week, is Heathers, or as it could also be called, Mean-est Girls. Mean-est both because the girls in it are, in fact, incredibly mean, much meaner than those in Mean Girls. And also because it‘s frankly just way better and deserves some sort of superlative! (No offence, Tina Fey.)
Starring Winona Ryder Christian Slater, and Shannon Doherty, 1988’s Heathers could be described as a dark comedy about the dangers of cliques. And I say dangers in a literal sense …
Smart-mouthed Veronica (Ryder) is sick of being used by the most infamous and popular clique in school made up of three formidable girls named Heather (“the Heathers”) and decides to get back at them through … murder. Manipulated by her boyfriend, new kid in school J.D. (Slater), Veronica systematically dismantles the social fabric of Westerburg High School. Cool kid after cool kid is targeted. The crimes are covered up and a string of supposed “suicides” rocks Westerburg High.
And then, in the great tradition of all things high school, once death becomes trendy, everyone wants to try it. As the body count rises, so does the chaos. And a hypocritical school administration is powerless to stop it.
Granted, it’s hard to imagine that a movie about murder and suicide could constitute a comedy. But with an excellent script full of one-liners, this movie is both hilarious and insightful. It gives a keen, almost Freudian view of desire, violence and teenage emotion. As Veronica herself says in the movie, “my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count.”
For the full experience, I suggest an evening screening, followed by a friendly game of croquet on the Arts Quad (As you’ll soon see, croquet plays an integral role in the movie’s set-up). But before I go, I should finish this column with a disclaimer : not all high school flicks are created equal! There are great ones like Heathers, but there are also a lot of not-so-great ones — movies that shamelessly exploit all of the clichés of high school without attempting to nuance, redefine or comment on them. Those are the ones to try to avoid.
So why waste your time quoting She’s All That when films like Heathers exist? In the infamous words of Veronica, what’s your damage?