Monday, July 10, 2017

Five (Because) High School Movies

One of my favorite podcasts right now is Pure Cinema, where most weeks the two hosts pick a theme or genre and give their respective "five because" list -- not five favorites, not the five best, just five because. Almost every episode inspires me to make my own "five because" list, but this week I actually did it.

There are a BUNCH of super obvious choices for this that I tried to avoid -- much of the John Hughes oeuvre, all those "take a literature classic and set it in high school" movies (sorry, Clueless), and Carrie. I tried instead for some deep cuts, or at least semi-deep or underappreciated.

So here goes. My "five because" high school movies:

#5: Grease 2 (1982)

Deal with it. While you'll get no argument from me that the music in the original Grease is definitely superior, as a whole, Grease 2 is where it's at for me. I think the story is genuinely better, and oh hey, it's actually FEMINIST. It  probably made up more of the image of what I thought high school would be like than any other teen movie I saw before I was actually in high school. And while the songs aren't that great -- some terrible, others terrible-tastic -- they're still catchy and I enjoy singing along to them. The weakest parts of the movie are when it tries to connect to the original, and I sort of wish this had been its own movie and not part of the Grease-verse at all, but the Pink Ladies and T-Birds dynamics are pretty essential to the plot. Whatever else I could say about the movie, though, Stephanie Zinoni is one of my life heroes. "Yeah, I'm free every day. It's in the constitution." (Streaming on Netflix US)

#4: Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Saddest reading of a Wordsworth poem EVER. One of Natalie Wood's best performances ("I'M NOT SPOILED, MOM!"), one of Warren Beatty's best performances, and among the pantheon of great bittersweet love stories. A lot of it takes place outside of the high school -- this could just as easily be part of a mental illness/institution movie list -- but it's still firmly in the high school milieu. Weirdly, this has a connection in my brain to another high school flick of the 60s, Teenage Mother. No, wait--really! They're both movies where a whole lot of the heartache and drama could have been avoided if people weren't so hung up about sex. This is a movie about the tug between what you want and what's expected of you, and dang if I don't get choked up when Warren Beatty is trying to explain to his dad that he wants to be a rancher and not a businessman. We're told in The Breakfast Club that when we grow up, our hearts die, but I don't think that's true and this movie is a great rebuttal to that. It's not that your heart dies; it's that the pull of responsibility and traditional adult roles are almost always too strong to keep fighting against. (Available to rent on iTunes/Amazon)

#3: All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

And now for something completely different. A lot of high school movies are also horror movies. There's lots of great low-hanging fruit in the High School Hell subgenre -- Carrie, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the movie you might think this is a ripoff of but it isn't, Jennifer's Body. All Cheerleaders Die is actually a fairly original and entertaining movie, and the horror comes as much from what these characters are willing to do to each other (in terms of high school backstabbery and revenge) as from any of the supernatural or gory stuff. It's co-directed and co-written by Lucky McKee, so if you liked May and The Woods and his episodes of Masters of Horror (particularly Sick Girl), this might be right up your alley. (Streaming on Netflix US)

#2: Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971)

An unusual mashup of teen sex comedy and murder mystery -- think American Pie meets Scream -- with Rock Hudson as a horny (and decidedly straight) football coach, Telly Savalas as an intrepid detective, James "Scotty" Doohan as his partner, Roddy McDowall as a beleaguered principal, Angie Dickinson as a sexy substitute teacher, Keenan Wynn as an inept police chief, John David Carson as a cute but awkward teenager with chronic priapism, and more absurdly beautiful women than should statistically be possible in a single high school. This movie is objectifying as all get-out, but it doesn't bother me that much considering the time it was made and the movie's other elements.  I love how audacious this movie is; the juxtaposition of genres alone is something that shouldn't work but absolutely does.

#1: Sing (1989)

High school was tough for me, as it was for nearly everyone, but it was made more tolerable by my taking part in artistic pursuits (in my case, marching band, winterguard, and madrigals). This movie is based on a real thing that is still going on in high schools in New York City -- student-run musical productions called "SING!" that typically pit classes against each other in competition -- and since seeing it in my own high school years, it's low-key one of my favorite musicals. The movie takes place at a school in Brooklyn that's facing closure in a community that's crumbling, but they want to put on one more SING! show because it's an important event not just for the school but for the community at large. There's a sweet opposite-sides-of-the-tracks romance, and several genuinely good songs (okay, "Birthday Suit" is hella cheesy, but "Romance" is lovely and all the SING! numbers are great, especially the heart-stirring "One More Time," which feels like a classic David Foster tune, and "We'll Never Say Goodbye," the greatest school song that never was). A lot of the movie is dour because these people's lives are tough, but that only reinforces the joy of the movie's last act, when the community gets together to cheer on the next generation, even against the admonition of the school board. The movie features Lorraine Bracco *just before* she was in Goodfellas, and even Patti Labelle in a minor role, but most of the rest of the cast is made up of lesser-knowns. It's hard to acquire, unfortunately, but the whole thing is on YouTube.

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