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Monday, November 5, 2007

School Days (originally published 4/99)

Take puberty, mix well with teen angst, throw in a heavy helping of adult responsibilities while being careful to withhold any trace of adult privilege, serve with a side dish of homework, and what have you got? High school, of course. You've also got an extraordinarily rich environment in which to tell dramatic stories, as filmmakers have long been aware. "Never Been Kissed," the new Drew Barrymore vehicle, is the latest in a line of high school movies stretching back for decades. For a sampling of earlier titles based on the high school experience, look for these titles on home video.

"Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever" (1939). What Ozzie and Harriet Nelson's family was to television viewers of the Fifties and early Sixties, the Hardy family was to moviegoers of the Thirties and Forties. Both represented America's screen ideal of what an American family should be in their respective times. Judge Hardy, played by Lewis Stone, is the family patriarch, but it is Mickey Rooney as the judge's son Andy who regularly steals the show. In this film, the seventh of the series, Andy develops a crush on his high school drama teacher. He hopes to impress her so much with his performance in the school play that she will agree to his proposal of marriage.

"High School Confidential" (1958). Russ Tamblyn plays the newest kid in school, but like Drew Barrymore's character in "Never Been Kissed," he's not what he appears to be. He's actually a federal agent who has been sent in to infiltrate the high school in an attempt to curb the school's drug problem. This was one of many low budget exploitation films built around juvenile delinquency among the high school crowd during the Fifties, including titles like "The Cool and the Crazy" (1958) and "High School Hellcats" (1958). By the way, one of the cast members of "High School Confidential" was John Drew Barrymore, Drew Barrymore's father.

"Cooley High" (1975). Right in the midst of the rise of black exploitation films, there appeared this nostalgic look back at a black high school of the early Sixties. This entertaining film, hailed in its time as a "black 'American Graffiti,'" was written by Eric Monte, who had created the "Good Times" television sitcom for Norman Lear.

"Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). In the Fall of 1979, 22-year-old "Rolling Stone" contributing editor Cameron Crowe returned to high school posing as a senior. Like Drew Barrymore's character in "Never Been Kissed," his objective was to observe and report. The movie rights to the book based on his experiences were picked up almost at once by Universal, leading to the defining role in Sean Penn's early career as the perpetually stoned surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli.

"The Breakfast Club" (1985). Writer-director John Hughes came into his own during the Eighties as the designated chronicler of contemporary teen angst. In contrast to so many other teen movies, much of the screen time of "The Breakfast Club" is devoted to kids just talking to each other. The simple premise consists of a group of high schoolers thrown together by the common circumstance of detention. Each represents a different stereotype (one a jock, another a juvenile delinquent, etc.) but as they open up to one another the stereotypical veneer gives way to richer, more complex characterizations. This is the film that is credited with establishing the Hollywood "Brat Pack," including Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy.

"Heathers" (1989). One of the most intransigent and unavoidable facts of high school life is cliques. The pain of social rejection is never quite as intense as in high school, where pecking orders are enforced with a vengeance. This dark comedy weaves perverse humor out of that pain through the cautionary tale of the downfall of the Heathers, Westerburg High's number one clique. Two renegade students, played by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, decide to murder the Heathers, arranging for each death to look like a suicide.

Much is made of the fact that high schools are more dangerous than they used to be in view of the frequency of recent campus shooting incidents. Looking at the evolution of high school movies from Andy Hardy's schoolboy crush to the emotional traumas dealt with in "The Breakfast Club" and "Heathers," I can't help wondering if the emotional risks don't outweigh even the physical dangers.

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