Review by Ryan Wilson

Seeing as the new school year is upon us, this month the DVD and Blue-ray gods have bestowed upon us updated versions of some of the best high school comedies ever made. If these aren’t great films in and of themselves, then they at least serve as touchstones for an entire generation. They certainly changed the way we thought of the high school experience. Picking up where American Graffiti left off in 1973, these movies all focused on the hardships of teenage life, empathizing with the students, while at the same time challenging the adult world that made it all so difficult.

I’ll begin with 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a movie that frankly displays the realities of teenage sex. The movie holds up so well because it’s almost schizophrenic. The story is at once a serious look at teen pregnancy and a screwball comedy about the sexual frustrations of being a teenager. Jennifer Jason Leigh gets the heavy dramatic lifting regarding consequences, while her brother, played by Judge Reinhold, flails about the picture in a virginal heat. All the while the picture treats these major story threads as if it’s just business as usual in an American high school. Most admirable is the way the film doesn’t condescend to its players or its audience. Behind the jokes and the drama is the feeling that all will be well, that life will only get better when these crummy times are behind you. That implied message gets lost, however, when you factor in two supporting actors who dominate the movie. The first is Phoebe Cates, who isn’t so much a character as an action. Her poolside scene has become the most famous bikini-drop in the history of film. Just try to capture a teenaged boy’s attention after that. The second is Sean Penn as stoner Jeff Spicoli, an instantly recognizable burnout. Spicoli looms so large that he is a stereotype, though one we hadn’t seen yet on screen in 1982.

1985’s Better Off Dead didn’t have explicit sex on its mind so much as the social dysfunction and the utter loneliness of rejection. When John Cusack’s Lane Myer gets dumped at the beginning of the film, what follows is a sort of suburban odyssey back toward self-respect. The film is absurdly picaresque, as Cusack must encounter clueless parents, insane teachers, pathetic and shallow classmates, and finally an obsessively insistent neighborhood paperboy wanting his “two dollars.” Besides being the most ridiculous of the 80s “school movies,” Better Off Dead, as its title suggests, knows that adolescence is a veritable freak show where, chances are, you are the freak, at least in your own mind. As the film teaches us, it’s best just to put your head down and date the foreign exchange student else the world of school will overwhelm you.

But just a year after Better Off Dead’s resignation, along came Ferris Bueller, who offered youth everywhere an alternative. Rather than just accepting your teenaged fate, 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  asked kids to challenge the powers that be and to become your own person. The film also, more than any other teen comedy of the 80s, captures the Reagan era. Supply-side economist Ben Stein is even in the film, playing a teacher boring his class with trickle-down theories. The kids are hysterically all comatose as he drones on. What sort of draconian world is this, the film seems to ask. That Ferris Bueller busts loose is interesting, but the way he busts loose is even more important. Unlike Spicoli he doesn’t openly rebel, and unlike Lane he won’t quietly suffer. Instead he’ll use the adult system against itself because he knows he’s smarter than the generation that has raised him. He even knows the language of adults and uses it to both mock and manipulate his principal. That Ferris Bueller is the son of a wealthy family makes perfect sense because he can see the problem in the power structure. When he convinces his friend Cameron to let him borrow his father’s Ferrari, he utters the most important line in the film: “A man with his priorities so far out of whack, doesn’t deserve such a fine automobile.” Ferris isn’t exactly altruistic. He’s no radical out to change the world, but in his amusement is the seed of discontent. We could place plenty of Generation X’s angst on him.

But if the 80s somehow feel like the golden age of youth because of these films, then 1993’s Dazed and Confused makes a strong argument for the 1970s, back when kids seemed to have more freedoms, including a lower drinking age and an open drug culture. The central conflict of the film is the choice to accept freedom in the form of vices or to succumb to authoritarian wishes. But like Fast Times, any serious message gets lost in all of the colorful characters, most notably the long-graduated Wooderson, played by Matthew McConaughey. To him, high school was the best period of life, and he’s loath to give it up if only because he keeps getting older but the high school girls stay the same age.

Sometimes I wonder where all of these larger that life teen characters would be today as adults. Spicoli and Wooderson are easy: they distribute medicinal marijuana. Lane Myers is probably middle management somewhere, still perplexed by his own lot in life. And Ferris Bueller? He’s no doubt still gaming the system, still taking full advantage of the power structure. I say, political lobbyist.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011