Usually when film buffs compile “Top #” lists, they verge on the dreadfully boring — not because they’re poor choices, but rather because they’re so predictable. So instead of giving you a predictable set of films merely about teenagers, like The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985) and American Pie (Weitz, 1999), I’ll give you a short list of films about adolescence and self-discovery. The following films, in addition to being critically acclaimed, say something interesting about the experience of being the age you are now, and may help you think about your own life and the lives of those around you in new and deeper ways. So, in no particular order, here are six films that every high schooler would benefit from seeing before graduating:
- Dazed and Confused (Linklater, 1993): Well before Linklater dazzled both critics and audiences with his ambitious chronicle Boyhood (2014), he wrote, produced, and directed this cult classic, hardly appreciated in its time. Featuring many actors who would later go on to achieve fame in their own rights (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey), the film demonstrates Linklater’s distinctive roving style, as it tells the stories of several high school students on the last day of class in Texas in 1976.
- Hoop Dreams (James, 1994): Originally intended to be a 30-minute short film produced for television, this documentary achieved rare popular status at the time for its raw and uncompromising look at the lives of two black high school students, living in the rougher neighborhoods of Chicago, who dream of playing professional basketball. An accessible and eloquent tale about not only adolescence, but also race, class, and ambition in America, this film is a cultural milestone.
- Election (Payne, 1999): Alexander Payne’s second feature, Election is an adaptation of Jim Taylor and Tom Perrotta’s dark comedy spoofing suburbia and politics. An important vehicle for the careers of not only Payne but also his leading actress, Reese Witherspoon, the film is a sardonic and thrilling dramatization of the perils of following one’s passions too blindly, one that reads like a contemporary version of an ancient Greek satire. Aeschylus anyone?
- The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich, 1971): One of the key films of the American cinematic renaissance during the 1970s, The Last Picture Show is a quiet eulogy for the obsolete values that had captured the previous generation. Focusing on the intersecting lives of three “futureless” teenagers in a dying American West, the film features stunning performances from the whole cast and gives a long hard look at some of the pains of growing up.
- L'Heure d'Été (Summer Hours; Assayas, 2008): A breathtakingly simple film about how objects experience and reflect the passage of time, L’Heure d’Été shows how adolescence is never quite over, as the members of a French family recollect their youths through various touchstones in their environment at three different stages in a major change to the family’s structure. At times sublime, the film is one that all high school students should see, not because it will be immediately wholly appealing but rather because, like a good suit, it’s something you’ll grow into in time.
And, because lists like this are always incomplete, here is a quick, descriptionless run-through of six runners-up that are solid films in their own ways: Cidade de Deus (City of God; Meireilles, 2002), Rebel without a Cause (Ray, 1955), Clueless (Heckerling, 1995), Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2000), The Wackness (Levine, 2008), and Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too; Cuarón, 2001).