Summer is nearly over, and for lots of kids, it’s time to go back to school. But before you head off to class, enjoy the last of your days of leisure this summer with a few back-to-school-appropriate films. Whether your idea of a great movie is tongue-in-cheek satire or an inspirational story of triumph, there’s a back to school movie for you, and we’ve listed 20 of the best ones here.
There are, of course, many more great movies appropriate for back to school viewing, but we believe these 20, listed in no particular order, deserve special honors. Read on to find out if your favorite back to school movie is on the list.
Students may be dreading the start of the school year, but at least they don’t have to take classes with their dad. Rodney Dangerfield stars as Thornton in this movie that takes him, an adult father, to school along with his college student son Jason after he discovers Jason is not doing as well as he might have hoped. But instead of studying, Thornton puts his money to work for him, bribing, throwing parties, and hiring professionals to complete his assignments, but after being exposed for his fraud, he’s challenged to pass his oral exams and makes it through. Thornton even manages to help out the school dive team in a pinch, pulling off the legendary “Triple Lindy.” This fun movie is made even more enjoyable with cameos from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., as himself, as well as Oingo Boingo-the frontman, Danny Elfman, composed the film’s score.
Cliques run rampant in most schools, and often, students don’t expand their friendships outside of their usual circles. But this movie may show them that it can be a good thing to branch out and find out what others may have to offer. In The Breakfast Club, five students from different social groups had to report for Saturday detention, for the most part unsupervised, with an assignment to complete an essay in which they discuss who they think they are. The students come together to pass the hours by opening up to each other and revealing their inner secrets. Despite their differences, they develop friendships and see themselves beyond preconceived judgments. The group completes the essay in letter form, accepting that they are seen in simple terms with convenient definitions, but that they do also have things in common and that their labels don’t tell the whole story of their existence — a great lesson for any student hoping to fit in at school.
Not everyone’s school can be as fantastical as Harry Potter’s, but it’s fun for students to imagine anyway. Students can get excited about returning to school as they watch the wonder of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Although most schools aren’t nearly as fun as Hogwarts, the movie does share universal truths about school, with cliques, detention, and the relationships of best friends and classmates. Besides, after watching Harry face obstacles like winning a violent life sized chess match and surviving a deadly plant, heading off to your first day of regular school doesn’t seem nearly so challenging.
If faced with family problems and socioeconomic issues, could you go on to succeed and win the spelling bee? If you’re Akeelah Anderson, you can. In Akeelah and the Bee, she overcomes judgment, racism, and disadvantage, competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, going on to win a first place tie with her friend Dylan. Akeelah’s story is encouraging for any student who struggles with issues that affect their success at school, and offers motivation for pushing forward for a great school year.
Just about every student fantasizes about skipping school at least once, and Ferris Bueller takes viewers on an adventurous experience as he takes an impromptu day off in this movie. On a last fling before heading off to college, Ferris and his friends run into plenty of trouble and deception. This is a lighthearted comedy that’s fun to watch over and over again, but it also shares a few lessons, with Ferris teaching his friend Cameron to stand up to his father, as well as encouraging him to stop and embrace life, if only for a day. Co-star Ben Stein agrees with this message, sharing that “We know we’re going to have to buckle down and work. We know we’re going to have to eventually become family men and women, and have responsibilities and pay our bills. But just give us a couple of good days that we can look back on.”
We like to think that School of Rock could actually happen in real life, although in reality, it would be a major breach of school security. With Jack Black playing Dewey Finn, a wannabe rockstar who was kicked out of his band, School of Rock follows his substitute class as he forms a band with 5th grade students. Get this, though: Dewey is not actually a substitute, but rather, pretending to be his roommate who actually is a substitute teacher. Despite his deception, the class band goes on to a good showing at the Battle of the Bands, and sparks a rich afterschool program taught by Dewey. Like The Breakfast Club, School of Rock shows how much fun classmates can have when they come together — great inspiration for students returning to school and hoping to make more friends this school year.
Bullies were a problem in 1984 when The Karate Kid came out, and they still are today, making this movie incredibly relevant for lots of students returning to school. As Daniel LaRusso starts at a new school, he finds himself a bully, the star student of the Cobra Kai dojo, and is beaten by him until his apartment handyman, Mr. Miyagi, intervenes and defeats not only his bully, but four of his friends with ease. Although initially, Mr. Miyagi denies Daniel’s request to train under him, he agrees to help when the bully’s dojo challenges Daniel to a match at a karate tournament. During their training, they grow into a surrogate father-son relationship, and Daniel learns several life lessons. Daniel ultimately beats his bully, making this not only a feel good movie, but a great lesson in perseverance over personal obstacles and bullies at school.
We’ve all heard of rough schools and some even have personal experience with them. At schools like Garfield High in East LA, discipline and survival take priority over learning. But as a new teacher, Jaime Escalante perseveres to not only teach his dropout-prone students basic curriculum, but push forward to teach them calculus. His students enroll in summer classes, earning college credit and keeping them out of trouble, an incredible triumph for the inner school teacher and students. This movie is based on a true story, and offers great inspiration for anyone struggling against achievement that goes beyond society’s expectations.
Say what you will about this odd movie, but Napoleon Dynamite proves there’s room for everyone in high school. Although Napoleon is eccentric and alienated, he’s able to help his friend Pedro, a transfer student from Mexico, secure the title of class president. Even the strange Napoleon Dynamite has friends, and not just any friends, but fun and forgiving ones. Students who feel they don’t fit in can find comfort and encouragement in Napoleon’s actions, as he helps Pedro prevail against a popular girl and score a big win for the outsiders at Preston High School.
For most high schoolers, turning 16 is a major event in their lives. In Sixteen Candles, Samantha “Sam” Baker has a pretty rough 16th birthday: her family forgets her birthday, everyone finds out she’s a virgin and saving herself for a popular senior, she has to go on a date with a foreign exchange student, and is relentlessly pursued by “the Geek,” played by Anthony Michael Hall. But all is not lost on this seemingly ruined but precious day for Sam. In the end, her crush comes through, albeit a day late, and they share a kiss over her birthday cake in the last scene. This coming of age film celebrates life’s frustrations, as well as rewards, a great idea for any emerging student.
If you’d like to know what high school was like in 1980s California, get a glimpse by watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Although certainly an exaggeration, this comedy film is actually based on Cameron Crowe’s real life experiences as he went undercover at Clairemont High School while freelancing for Rolling Stone magazine. Follow a year in the life of these fun loving and carefree teenagers as they search for love and take on Mr. Hand, a teacher convinced that all of the students are on drugs. This film is loved by high school students and critics alike, with rankings on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list, Bravo’s 100 Funniest Movies, and Entertainment Weekly’s 50 Best High School Movies.
Celebrate the exaggerated stereotypes of high school students at graduation in Can’t Hardly Wait. Set during a high school graduation party, viewers can watch as these seniors break up, gossip, reunite, profess their love, exact revenge and have awkward sex. This movie offers hilarious entertainment-and for high school seniors, something to look forward to at the end of the year when it’s time for their own high school graduation party.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a remarkable teacher at school, but for the lucky few, a great teacher can change your life. In Dead Poets Society, Professor Keating encourages his prep school students to break out of conformity through poetry and literature. Although Professor Keating is ultimately fired for his rebellious teachings, it’s clear that he made an impact on the boys, as in the final scene, they salute him as he exits their former classroom, amid threat of expulsion. This film offers a message of self reliance and standing up for what’s right, and stresses the importance of thinking as an individual-great ideals for any student, especially those in high school and college.
Kids can be so cruel, especially popular girl cliques. When a 16-year-old homeschooled girl, Cady, played by Lindsey Lohan, arrives at North Shore High School, she first befriends the school’s outsiders, and then becomes accepted by the Plastics, the exclusive girl clique. With the help of her outsider friend, Janis, Cady plans to take down the Plastics from the inside, eventually overthrowing their leader, Regina, to become the new Queen Bee. But her newfound power takes Cady too far, and she alienates her original outcast friends as well as her love interest, Aaron. The trouble at school reaches its height when former Queen Bee Regina strikes back by spreading a Burn Book around the school, sharing hurtful secrets and rumors about students and faculty, inciting a riot and focusing the blame on Cady and the Plastics. Cady is punished for her actions, forced to join the “social suicide” Mathletes, where she turns over a new leaf and eventually makes up with everyone who has been wronged. Although Mean Girls is a seriously funny comedy, it also shares great social commentary, reminding students and adults alike that hurting your friends and peers ultimately means hurting yourself.
Cher Horowitz lives a life that most students would envy: she is extremely wealthy, popular, and beautiful. But at the same time, she is amazingly superficial. Cher’s problems begin when her popular status is downgraded as her friend and makeover “project,” Tai, becomes more popular than Cher herself. Her world seems to fall down around her when she fails her driver’s test and can’t renegotiate the result — as she is used to doing on a regular basis with grades. She has an epiphany and realizes that she should change her priorities and work to live a more useful life, organizing a disaster relief effort and accepting the fact that she has fallen in love with her ex-step brother, Josh. After this realization, all falls in to place for Cher and her friends-and viewers get the lighthearted message that a meaningful life trumps superficiality.
The film Election features excellent satire of high school life and politics, as unopposed (and obsessive overachiever) class president candidate Tracy Flick suddenly finds opposition. Her teacher, Jim McAllister, takes out some personal anger toward Tracy– under the guise of creating a more democratic election — by enlisting a popular varsity football player to run against her. After a series of dirty politics and romantic drama, Tracy is elected class president, but only after it is discovered that McAllister attempted to rig the election. It all works out in the end, with Tracy getting accepted into Georgetown, and even McAllister fulfilling a lifetime dream of moving to New York City. The story’s message to students is clear: dirty politics and deception might be funny, but honesty prevails in the end.
Back to school means back to football season, and this film will get you ready to enjoy some great high school football. Friday Night Lights follows the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas as they play football, giving hope and something to live for to their economically depressed town. Although the team experiences setbacks throughout the season, they make it to the finals. They are defeated by a narrow margin, but in their defeat, realize how much they’ve done to overcome their struggles as a team. Even with a loss, this movie has a feel good ending, and on top of preparing high school football fans for a great season, the film shares a lesson of teamwork and perseverance that’s great for every student.
Rushmore follows 15-year-old student Max Fischer, who doesn’t do well academically, but excels in extracurricular activities. He seems to seek an unrealistic life, as he falls in love with a widowed teacher at his school, Miss Cross, and befriends Herman Blume, an industrialist whose sons also attend the school. Things fall apart for Max as he is expelled from Rushmore and finds out that Blume is also in love with Miss Cross. This creates a war between the two that leads to Max’s arrest after he cuts Blume’s brake lines, sending Max into a depression. Max and Blume eventually reconnect, and Max begins to do well in school, developing a friendship and eventually a love interest in Margaret, a student who he previously rebuffed. Max is also able to play matchmaker, reuniting Miss Cross and Blume. Students watching this film should understand that although achievement and ambition are important, they are worth nothing without balance. Max learned to live an extraordinary life, while still remembering to pay attention to the things that really matter: his grades, friendships, and family.
Nerdy Ronald Miller, played by Patrick Dempsey, saves up over the summer and uses his hard earned cash to make a deal with a popular cheerleader Cindy at school: she will pretend to be his girlfriend for a month in exchange for $1,000. During this time, he shed his nerdy image, becoming popular, and the two began to genuinely enjoy each other. But when Cindy’s real boyfriend comes home from college, she reveals the truth, leaving Ronald without any friends. A social outcast, Ronald redeems himself as he defends his former best friend against a bully which also causes Cindy to recognize Ronald’s worth after all. This film seems to share the message that although popularity is fun, there’s no quick fix for being a genuine person.
Carrie probably won’t have any viewers excited about returning to school, but rather possibly a little frightened by the possibility that a classmate might have telekinetic powers. But still, this film about an abused girl who fights back against her tormentors with supernatural ability is an amazing train wreck that you can’t stop watching. As Carrie kills not only her classmates, but her mother and herself, those watching the movie will surely learn one important lesson: don’t mess with the shy girl.