The extinction of the great 21st century high school movie

Taylor Bigler Entertainment Editor
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We live in a dark era, you guys. Sure, there have been plenty of great, campy comedies in the past 10 years.  “Knocked Up,” “The Hangover” (the first one only), most of Will Ferrell’s movies, “Wicker Man.”

But there is one genre that is all but extinct: the classic High School Movie.

I don’t mean a movie made solely for teenagers. I’m talking about the campy high school movies whose actors were obviously in their twenties. I mean the high school movies where there are rarely parents; there is no homework and where these teenagers basically exist in a vacuum and the only thing they care about is having sex, usually for the first time. The type of movie that I would happily watch tonight.

Gone are the days of the “10 Things I Hate About You” rom com; the “Cruel Intentions” psychodrama; the “Scream” horror flick or the “Can’t Hardly Wait” party movie. Enter the big-budget book-to-movie trilogy.

The classic High School Movie has one or more of the following elements: main character needs to accomplish something before high school ends; group of friend try to lose virginity before school is over; guy must tell girl he loves her before high school is over; character must learn something about herself in order to accept love/ popularity. And, obviously, lots of big parties and a lack of parents. They were always superficial and always awesome.

This formerly great sub-genre of the High School Movie has been replaced with teenaged vampires, teens saving dystopian societies and terribly sappy teen romances.

Where have all the High School Movies gone?

While there were others before it, the birth of the classic high school flick all came in 1982 with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the first — and perhaps still the best — movie about high school. This was the “American Pie” of the eighties. It was raunchy, groundbreaking and definitely something you wouldn’t watch with your parents.

Sure, there are a handful of teachers and parents in it, but mostly the high schoolers act and react in a world of their own.

“Fast Times” blazed the trail for other high school movies to follow suit.

John Hughes made a hugely successful career for himself using mainly this genre, starting with 1982’s “Sixteen Candles,” and continuing with “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” His films were fairly squeaky clean, at least compared to the movies that would come a decade later.

1988’s “Heathers” was also hugely influential to the genre and was the first in the genre to take a dark turn because the plot revolves around a group of girls kill the most popular girl in school.

(“Dazed and Confused” in 1993 was an anomaly to the genre because it was such an homage to “Fast Times” that it stands alone. And it’s so great that it transcends genre.)

The more modern — and more bawdy — high school movie really hit its peak after “Clueless” came out in 1995. An update on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” this movie had everything: attractive, rich teens played by twentysomethings, very little parental oversight, partying and the most important topic of all: SEX.

The main character’s intact virginity is one of the movie’s oft-discussed topics and would become a main character in most high school movies to come.

Horror flicks of the nineties (“I Know What You Did Last Summer,” “Urban Legend”) are an entirely different discussion, but movies like “Scream” used the scary movie element as another layer to its classic High School Movie premise.

After all, the climax of the movie takes place at a high school party where the main character who has sex for the first time. “Scream” is especially successful because it is a wink-wink, nude-nudge to both the silliness of horror movies and of older actors playing teens when it came out in 1996.

Whether you like it or not, 1999’s “American Pie” was another groundbreaking high school comedy. Like “Fast Times,” it used the end of high school as an hourglass for the characters to get dates for prom and more importantly, have sex.

“American Pie” was one of the first movies to use gross-out humor throughout and completely succeed. It would be hard to believe that Judd Apatow himself didn’t take some cues from it.

1998’s “Cruel Intentions” is another one that, although not a comedy (at least not intentionally), it’s another film that defined the late nineties.

The quasi-“Dangerous Liaisons” remake is as campy and ridiculous as it gets, but I’d argue it is one of the defining high school movies of the late nineties. (How wildly unbelievable is it that ANY of these characters are in high school?! I mean, come on. But still. It’s incredible. You know it.)

After 2000, the High School Movie genre really started to drop off.

With the exception of “Bring It On” in 2000 and *possibly* “The Girl Next Door” in 2003 (although it pushes the boundaries of the genre a bit), the quintessential “teen has to pass an exam, tell a girl he loves her, have sex before graduation but OH NO it’s the end of high school what are they going to do it’s okay they figure it out” movie, the genre really came to a screeching halt.

“Mean Girls” played with the formula in 2004, but it’s not a High School Movie so much as it is a girl movie that guys happen to also like.

The last great High School Movie came out nearly a decade ago with 2007’s “Superbad,” but even that is an Apatowian anomaly. His movies stand alone in their own genre since they all follow their own distinct formula and reuse the same actors and the same jokes.

There have been some movies here and there throughout the 2010’s that have tried and failed to emulate the genre, like “Easy A” or the terrible “Project X.”

Mostly, high school movies are all action or all Nicholas Sparks. I feel bad for the children and demand that Hollywood try again.

In the meantime, here’s a clip from my favorite High School Movie and a movie that has a spot on my top-five all-time favorite movies list:

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