Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Along with classics Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, writer Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a coming-of-age ’80s favorite chronicling a year in the lives of freshmen Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), and their older, “wiser” friends Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). The star-studded cast includes Sean Penn as a perpetually stoned troublemaker, Judge Reinhold, and Nicolas Cage—and Crowe and director Amy Heckerling show just what it feels like to spin inside the chaos that is the American high-school experience.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo’s clownfish father, Marlin, is nervous about letting his little Nemo out of their safe anemone nest and out into open waters for his first day of school, particularly since a barracuda attack left him with one undersize fin. Marlin tells his son to stay close once they arrive at school, but the impetuous Nemo sneaks away, only to be caught by a scuba diver. And so begins the finding, as Marlin embarks on a search with a regal tang, Dory, who suffers from short-term memory loss, and Crush, a surfer-dude sea turtle.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Shelley compared prep school to a “world of woes,” and Orwell said he began wetting his bed after arriving at St. Cyprian’s. But through Peter Weir’s autumnal camera, it really doesn’t seem that bad, except for the creepy stare that headmaster Gale Nolan (Norman Lloyd) uses to greet a young Ethan Hawke, playing Todd Anderson. Anderson befriends Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), a perfect student who wants to be a Shakespearean actor, and other “poets,” thanks to the encouragement of their English teacher, Robin Williams’s John Keating (now that’s a subtle name). The question is, how do you learn with Williams shouting “O Captain! My Captain!” at you?
Grease 2 (1982)
The sequel to the hit movie musical, Grease 2 opens in the fall of 1961, two years after the events of the original film, as students arrive for a new academic year at Rydell High School. The new leader of the Pink Ladies is beautiful senior Stephanie Zinone (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has “outgrown” her boyfriend Johnny (Adrian Zmed), the leader of the T-Birds, over the summer. New to the school is Michael Carrington (Maxwell Caulfield), the straightlaced British student and cousin to the previous film’s Sandy. And Sandy’s old friend Frenchy (Didi Conn), who has returned to Rydell after dropping out of beauty school, shows him around.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
The film has become known for ushering in what seems like an inexorable surrender to youth culture, but James Dean and director Nicholas Ray were singing an elegy to an age that was over. Dean’s Jim Stark is new in town—a Los Angeles that’s way too white to be that realistic, even in those years—and runs into a gang that includes a young Dennis Hopper. But like Remembrance of Things Past, the film has a beautiful but misleading title, because Stark is not a rebel without a cause. One look at those watery eyes and you’d recognize that what Dean portrayed was someone older and sadder than everyone else, including his dysfunctional parents. His cause was clear: the protection of his friend Plato (Sal Mineo), and the anguish that Dean unleashes when he fails shows why he became an icon—not because he exemplified teenagerism, but because he dramatized the broken beauty of a key moment in American innocence, an innocence somewhat like the one that dies after you’ve been through the first day of school.
Billy Madison (1995)
Billy Madison (Adam Sandler) is the spoiled son of wealthy hotel owner Brian Madison (Darren McGavin). After announcing his retirement, Brian decides he will turn the company over to his employee Eric Gordon (Bradley Whitford) because Billy is so irresponsible. Brian also confesses that he bribed Billy’s teachers to allow him to graduate. Billy then sets out to redo grades 1-12 in 24 weeks, in order to prove himself to his father. Most of us can remember pacing the sidewalk before boarding the school bus for the first time, but Billy really didn’t have to sing his “back to school” song because the bus doesn’t even stop for him (he rolls up in a Jaguar instead). Not to be missed: Chris Farley as the angry bus driver taking the kids on a field trip.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the movie that launched the most successful film franchise of all time—this episode alone grossed $974.8 million. Orphaned Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) lives with his aunt and uncle, and sleeps in a cupboard under the stars. That all changes when half-giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) arrives and tells Harry that he is actually a wizard. After buying school supplies—you know, your usual wand, robe, and owl—Harry boards the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 ¾ of Kings Cross Station and goes to start his magical education. Along the way, the Sorting Hat places him in Gryffindor House, he meets his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), learns to play Quidditch, and faces the evil Lord Voldemort for the first time. Not bad for the first year of school.
Mean Girls (2004)
If you thought your first day at school was tough, consider the case of Cady (Lindsay Lohan), who has just moved from Africa, where she was homeschooled and allowed to go the bathroom without a hall pass, the requirement of which has always struck us as a human-rights violation. During the course of her first day, she goes from being barred from the toilet to eating her lunch on it. The next day, Cady befriends the fizzily Gothic Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and the “too gay to function” Damian (Daniel Franzese), who dares her in turn to join the court of the queen bee Regina (Rachel McAdams), described by Janis as not just “your typical selfish, back-stabbing, slut-faced ho-bag,” but “so much more.” The truth is that the terrain of a typical American high school is even more overgrown than the Serengeti with wild animals—with savage beauties like Regina—and Cady falls prey. But there was never a doubt that Cady, who bears the strong-willed imprint of the movie’s writer, Tina Fey, is too smart not to like Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Back to School (1986)
Rodney Dangerfield stars as Thornton Melon, a wealthy businessman who made his fortune without being college educated. When his son Jason (Keith Gordon) announces his intention to drop out of college, Thornton offers to enroll if it will convince his son to stay. After donating a building to help guarantee his admission, Thornton joins Jason at college, and in the process helps the underdogs triumph. The way Melon gets around the line at registration is particularly ingenious, thanks to the magnetism of The Boss. Check out Robert Downey Jr. as a Robert Smith lookalike.