Ah, high school. There’s nothing like the drama, cliques, and crushes of being 16. It’s a unique time when you’ve (for the most part) moved on from the crippling insecurities of middle school and are starting to realize you’re an individual with your own tastes and opinions—but you still live under your parents’ roof and rules. Everything is the end of the world, and it can be hard to see the bigger picture beyond this weekend’s football game or next weekend’s dance.
I love high school movies. Yes, they’re scripted, but I love seeing other people reenact what I went through. I guess I wasn’t alone or weird or different, after all—these characters experienced the same things I did, and it’s fun to go back and reminisce about high school memories.
Everybody has a unique high school experience, but there are certain emotions and situations that everyone goes through. So I decided to make a list of those high school movies that really got the high school part down. This isn’t a list of my favorite or the best high school movies, but the ones that feel like high school. (I love Grease as much as you do, but 24-year-old John Travolta wasn’t fooling anyone as a high-schooler.)
Here are 15 high school movies that actually feel like high school!
1. 16 Candles
Molly Ringwald is a sure sign of a fantastic high school movie, and 16 Candles is one of the greatest. 16-year-old-me was always pining after Jake Ryan (and didn’t we all pine after our own versions of Jake Ryan in high school?), but I didn’t have the same luck Sam did.
2. Say Anything
Diane Court is so wonderfully protective of her heart, and Lloyd Dobler is just so adorably perfect. On paper, Say Anything is a total cliché—the quirky popular guy falls for the shy valedictorian—but their relationship is so honest that it works. The money laundering dad doesn’t quite scream “stereotypical high school,” but every family has their weirdness, so it stays.
3. Can’t Hardly Wait
I love this movie because it’s so innocent. The characters all want something so simple, but so seemingly beyond their reach: to get over heartbreak, to get revenge on a bully, to get laid. (Also, I love Can’t Hardly Wait because of young Seth Green.)
Cher Horowitz has a way normal life, just like other teenagers (even if it totally looks like a Noxzema commercial). She’s focused on things like passing her driver’s test, raising her grades, and finding love. The only thing my teenage years were missing was a fresh-faced Paul Rudd drinking milk straight from the carton and that crazy incredible closet.
5. Dead Poets Society
Welton Academy is not your typical high school, but Dead Poets Society is the ultimate coming-of-age tale that tackles finding your own identity. Everyone had that special teacher who opened their eyes to the importance of living extraordinarily. Carpe diem, my captain.
6. Dazed and Confused
Dazed and Confused is one of the most perfect “high school kids doing high school kid things” movies. Nothing exceptional happens in the movie, but at the same time, everything happens. There’s football, hazing, driving around, partying, goodnight kisses, and getting grounded. It IS high school (plus a young Matthew McConaughey).
7. The Breakfast Club
I told you Molly Ringwald would be back. The Breakfast Club is another high school movie staple. The movie touches on some very honest moments, and perfectly captures the insecurities all high schoolers face (regardless of their clique). It unites a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal, and shows the world they can exist in perfect-ish harmony.
8. Mean Girls
Speaking of cliques, Mean Girls explains ‘em all. This movie perfectly captures that queasy “I want to be myself, but I’ll get rewarded for following the crowd” feeling high school is infamous for. But in the end, it proves even the most popular people don’t always fit in, and encourages us to be our true selves.
9. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
This is another classic high school movie, a la Dazed and Confused. There are first jobs, first cars, first girlfriends, first heartbreaks—first everything. (Oh, and there’s young Sean Penn.)
10. Bring it On
If you want school spirit, look no further than Bring it On. Its themes are classically simple yet complex in a high school way—the biggest problem the adorable Kirsten Dunst has is fighting over cheer routines with a rival school, and finding words that rhyme with “toros.” Note: I cannot speak to any of the Bring it On movies beyond the first, except to say there are way too many and they are always on cable TV.
11. Friday Night Lights
We can’t talk about high school movies without talking about football. It’s a staple in the high school movie genre, and Friday Night Lights is the best (and most realistic—sorry Varsity Blues). Football-centric movies are emotional and character-building, capturing the highs of victory, the pressures of playing, and the emptiness of defeat.
This is a side of high school not everyone experiences, but is a reality nonetheless. In Juno, Ellen Page grapples with being pregnant and weighing options like adoption and abortion—on top of regular 16-year-old worries, like prom. Not everyone can relate to being pregnant in high school, but everyone can relate to first loves and heartbreaks and the general confusion of being a teenager.
13. High School Musical
No shame: High School Musical is one of my favorite movies. I totally appreciated that Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens ACTUALLY looked young enough to be in high school. Troy Bolton is a typical teenager, embarrassed he’ll get made fun of for liking things that aren’t considered cool, but learns the important lesson of just being himself. It’s totally normal stuff—you know, minus that whole breaking out into song thing.
14. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Being a teenager is complicated, and this book/movie just gets it. Charlie, Patrick and Sam are the perfect group of self-aware teens, wise beyond their years, knowing high school is temporary but still living in the moment. And what is high school if not feeling on the edge of endless potential?
15. 10 Things I Hate About You
Last but certainly not least, 10 Things I Hate About You. Truthfully, this high school is more like a castle. But inside the walls of this fortress, Kat, Bianca, Patrick, and Cameron are as high school as high school gets—feeling real feels for the first time, discovering the things that matter most to them, and just trying to make it through another day of school. I just wish someone would have asked me to prom with the help of the marching band, too.