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7 best high school movies, ranked

Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in Superbad.
Sony Pictures

Ah, high school, a time full of awkward encounters, wild first experiences, and moments parents just can’t understand. When movies try to portray this especially tumultuous period in any teenager’s life, only a few manage to stand out as accurate and entertaining reflections of the triumphs and tribulations of some of the most important years for most people.

From the iconic and ever-charming The Breakfast Club to the legendary and still-fetch Mean Girls, the best high school movies capture the essence of these critical years with humor, heart, and a healthy dose of drama. Whether viewers are looking for a nostalgic viewing experience or a relatable story, there’s something for everyone among this diverse selection of dramas, comedies, and coming-of-age tales that offer all kinds of journeys through the ups and downs of youth.

7. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Universal Pictures

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a raunchy R-rated comedy based on Cameron Crowe’s 1981 book, which he wrote after going undercover as a student at Clairemont High School in San Diego. Set in the titular school in suburban California, it depicts the experiences of a group of teenagers, including Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who ends up in a love triangle with shy guy Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) and his confident friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). There’s also the resident surfer dude Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), who’s often stoned, and soon butts heads with the strict teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston).

The 1982 film perfectly captures what it was like to be in high school during that time, thanks to its attention to small details like the language, what work was like, and even the food. It was also considered transgressive then for its bold portrayal of sexuality and taboos like abortion, which it seamlessly weaved into its realistic, yet humorous depiction of teenage life.

6. Heathers (1988)

Four teen girls stand together in Heathers.
New World Pictures

Director Michael Lehmann’s Heathers is a deliciously dark comedy that takes place at Westerburg High School, where Veronica Sawyer (Stranger Things season 5 star Winona Ryder) is sick of the popular clique’s cruel ways. The clique, known as the Heathers, soon meet their match in the form of a disruptive outsider, J.D. (Christian Slater), who is determined to take them down.

With its exaggerated characters and macabre perspective, Heathers was praised for its bitingly satirical take on high school. Ryder is unforgettable as the vulnerable, then defiant Veronica, flawlessly playing her role as the “anti-Heathers” character. The subversive movie went against the genre’s tropes and would influence future teen and high school flicks — it was even adapted into a musical and a television reboot.

5. Dazed and Confused (1993)

Four teens stand near a fountain in school in Dazed and Confused.
Gramercy/Universal

An iconic stoner comedy from director Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused takes fans back to the 1970s, specifically to 1976 in Austin, Texas, where several teenagers are celebrating their last day of high school. There’s no clear plot, with the 1993 film jumping between characters that include star football player Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), scary bully Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck), and incoming freshman Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins).

From keg parties to unavoidable hazing, Dazed and Confused captures the different aspects that make high school feel like such a daunting, exciting, and important time. It’s a well-made and nostalgic tribute to the period that benefits greatly from Linklater’s direction, with the filmmaker ensuring that the naturalistic dialogue and interactions result in a laid-back vibe that makes the 1993 movie so easy to enjoy. Of course, it also helps that the film features fantastic performances from an ensemble cast that includes then-rising stars like Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Joey Lauren Adams, and Parker Posey.

4. Clueless (1995)

Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, and Brittany Murphy in Clueless (1995)
Paramount Pictures

Clueless is an extremely creative reimagining of Jane Austen’s 1815 classic novel Emma. Starring Alicia Silverstone as the gorgeous, wealthy, and popular high school student Cher Horowitz, it follows her experiences after deciding to give the new student, Tai (Brittany Murphy), a makeover. She also plays matchmaker for her teachers, which only makes her more assured about her skills. Cher soon gets entangled in messy drama, however, especially when she realizes she’s falling for her ex-stepbrother, Josh Lucas (Paul Rudd).

Directed by Amy Heckerling, Clueless is a time capsule for the ’90s, featuring prominent fashion trends like knee-high socks and preppy outfits that would become even more common after the film’s premiere. It also served as a crucial evolution for the teen genre, essentially serving as a blueprint for the coming-of-age chick flick obsession that came with the new century. Plus, Cher’s character and story arc challenged the “ditzy” image used to criticize women for decades by highlighting that confidence, intelligence, and femininity can go hand in hand.

3. The Breakfast Club (1985)

The main cast of The Breakfast Club sitting together in school.
Universal Pictures

The Breakfast Club is an influential coming-of-age movie that became the quintessential example of the genre from the ’80s. It has a deceptively simple premise, as it’s centered on time spent during one Saturday detention. Directed by John Hughes, it brings together five very different students: the brain, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall); the athlete, Andrew (Emilio Estevez); the basket case, Allison (Ally Sheedy);the princess, Claire (Molly Ringwald); and the criminal, Bender (Judd Nelson).

Instead of featuring prominent genre tropes at that time, The Breakfast Club steered clear of sex and violence and chose to be a character-driven film that made the most out of a small budget. Through candid conversations, unexpected vulnerability, and surprising moments of connection, the students find what they all have in common, which is a feeling of being lost and misunderstood by adults. This resonated with American audiences then — and even now — ensuring that the 1985 film is one that anyone can revisit or discover for the first time today.

2. Superbad (2007)

Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, and Michael Cera in Superbad.
Sony Pictures

Starring Jonah Hill and Michael Cera as a hilarious duo making the best of their last weeks of high school, Superbad chronicles their misadventures when they’re invited to a huge house party. Determined to be cool and hopefully lose their virginity, Seth (Hill) and Evan (Cera) go the extra mile to somehow get alcohol for the event. An unfortunate run-in with two police officers ends up complicating their mission, especially since they catch the dim-witted Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) trying to buy liquor.

Directed by Greg Mottola and written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the film is a gut-busting portrait of the best and worst parts of being a teenager. With adulthood just around the corner, the two main characters are desperate to change their reputations and have a blast, but end up in embarrassing situations in the process. Superbad fires on all cylinders, striking comedy gold with its witty dialogue, funny performances, and famous quotes like “I am McLovin!”

1. Mean Girls (2004)

Lacey Chabert, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, and Amanda Seyfried in Mean Girls (2004)
Paramount Pictures

Without a doubt, Mean Girls is the greatest teen and high school movie ever made. Directed by Mark Waters and written by Tina Fey, the beloved 2004 movie takes place at North Shore High School, where homeschooled teenager Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) has recently transferred. She immediately incurs the wrath of the vicious clique of popular girls known as “The Plastics,” led by their queen bee, Regina George (Rachel McAdams). Desperate to fit in, Cady infiltrates the group and soon finds herself adopting their toxic behaviors.

Mean Girls is a pop culture phenomenon that has endured as the best and most famous example of the genre. Through a comedic lens, Tina Fey would perfectly capture the wonderful and terrible experience of being a young woman in high school, along with all of the societal pressures that come with it. The film’s biting satire of high school dynamics has helped cement it as a relatable fan favorite, with the movie’s memorable lines and over-the-top characters ensuring that Mean Girls will always be fetch.

Editors' Recommendations

Hannah Saab
Saab whips up SEO-optimized articles as a writer for Digital Trends and updates top-performing articles on Collider.
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