With Labor Day at our backs, it’s time for millions of kids to get ready for school (and the rest of us to get back to work). For filmmakers, there is something emotionally rich and exciting about that time of life when characters are students and the world is an unopened book. Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased (in select theaters on November 2) tells one such story with Lucas Hedges as teenager who is trying to discover his true self in a world that questions every aspect of his identity.
To get you in the mood for school days, we’ve put together a primer of great films dealing with all phases of education, from a documentary about a TV host who taught so many children how to trust themselves to a high school musical that breaks all the rules.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? | Learning the basics
Before many of us were even old enough for school, Fred Rogers, the cardigan-wearing host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was teaching us all about the world around us, from what is make believe to how to make crayons. In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, director Morgan Neville explores the profound philosophy of kindness that drove Rogers’ pedagogic mission. “What I have come to realize is that for the millions of kids who grew up watching him like I did, our relationship with him was unlike any other cultural figure,” notes Neville. “We watch him encouraging generations of kids to use their imaginations,” Entertainment Weekly points out, adding, “The lessons taught there were priceless.”
Get tickets for Won’t You Be My Neighbor now.
Brick | Extracurricular activities
For his first feature out of film school, Rian Johnson returned to high school with his teen noir Brick. When Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovers his ex-girlfriend has been killed, he takes it upon himself to unravel the mystery of her murder by diving deep into his school's demimondes of jacked-up jocks, theater dolls, and drug dealers. While writing the script, Johnson quickly discovered how well noir’s cynical tone and dark perspective fit the reality of high school: “It…became about the emotional experience of being a teenager.” Entertainment Weekly couldn't agree more, adding that the film “grabs hold of a fundamental truth….The schoolyard can be the noirest burg of all.”
Thoroughbreds | Dangerous minds
When Cory Finley started sketching out the dramatic premise for his debut film Thoroughbreds, he returned to his teen years, remembering “some very wealthy kids from my high school.” Set among Connecticut’s upper crust, the psychological thriller explores the emerging relationship between two old friends, the socially adept Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the emotionally distant Amanda (Olivia Cooke) as they hatch a plan to deal with Lily’s overbearing stepfather with the help of a local drug dealer (Anton Yelchin). While the story starts with Lily tutoring Amanda for the SATs, the two are soon teaching each other how to misbehave. Urban Daddy believes that Amanda’s lesson in fake crying is “destined to be included in the canon of great high school movie moments.”
Admission | Advanced placement
Paul Weitz’s Admission finds comedy in a subject that many students and parents fear will end in tragedy—applying to college. As an admissions officer at Princeton University, Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) has seen it all, from overachieving candidates to underhanded parents. But when she meets a teacher at an alternative high school (Paul Rudd) with a very special student, her critical faculties fail her. While you can’t add the film to your transcript, its smart humor makes it a great viewing candidate. For Entertainment Weekly, Admission “crackles with the sound of very clever people trying to outtalk each other—an all too rare and happy thing to encounter in a Hollywood movie.”
Hamlet 2 | Revisiting the classics
The old adage “those who can’t do, teach” gets a hilarious interpretation in Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2. Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), whose biggest achievement as an actor was a late-night herpes commercial, gives up on his Hollywood dreams to take a job as a drama teacher in Tucson, Arizona. But when the school threatens to kill the theater department, Marschz goes big to try to save it, getting his band of misfit drama students to help him put on a musical sequel to Hamlet, with showstopping numbers like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” nearly creating a riot. “It’s…a high school musical that would make John Waters proud,” exclaims Entertainment Weekly.