Top of the class: The high school on film

From Rebel Without a Cause to Mean Girls, the corridors and cafeterias of the high school play a central role in US cinema. Nick Barber takes a closer look.

It’s been 60 years since James Dean taught a generation how to slouch stylishly in Rebel Without a Cause, but one sequence near the beginning of the film could have been shot yesterday. It’s the scene in which Dean’s angst-ridden 17-year-old hero, Jim Stark, arrives for his first day at Dawson High School in Los Angeles.

There are palm trees shading the school’s sleek pastel facade. The stars and stripes are on the flagpole. Crowds of Jim’s fellow students are congregating, all of them perky and fashionably dressed, and most of them, like Dean, looking so grown-up that they should have left school a decade earlier. And there, posing on the steps leading up to the main entrance, is a sneering gang that sees Jim as an offensively uncool outsider.

Update a few fashions, and the same sequence is there in Grease, Mean Girls and a hundred other teen movies. Hollywood directors, it seems, just can’t stop going to school, whether they’re making romantic comedies (Pretty in Pink) or slasher movies (I Know What You Did Last Summer), macabre satires (Heathers) or hard-boiled detective yarns (Brick). A new documentary, Beyond Clueless, has some theories about this obsession.

“High schools are full of disparate people who didn’t choose to be in the same building as each other,” says Catherine Bray, the documentary’s producer. “The only thing that unites them in is their age. That means that it’s a great place for antagonism between people with different interests and values, and a great place for mismatched romance. You can have a jock falling for a nerd, for instance, whereas if the characters were adults, they wouldn’t even meet each other, so none of those culture clashes would happen.

“The other thing is that people at school are still experimenting with who they are, morally, so you can get away with setting a Shakespeare comedy or a Jane Austen novel in the present day, even if it has a plot about turning an ugly duckling into a beauty queen, as in Clueless or She’s All That. You cut the characters some slack because they’re teenagers, but if they were adults you’d think they were psychotic.”

In short, adolescent hormones are a potent catalyst for drama. But that doesn’t explain why these movies are such an American phenomenon: the Harry Potter series aside, non-American films set in secondary schools are few and far between. One reason for this is simply that high schools – with their Friday night football games and gowned-and-mortarboarded graduation ceremonies – are so central to US iconography. But, just as significantly, the layout of an archetypal American high school is a gift to film-makers. Every now and then, Hollywood will venture to a deprived inner-city sink school (Dangerous Minds) or an ivy-clad academy (Rushmore), but the campuses in the vast majority of teen movies are interchangeable: sunny, suburban, and gloriously cinematic.

‘The Wild West’

First of all, there is the front of the school, which is so broad that it could have been designed to fill a cinema screen. Stretched before it is a carpark where teenagers emerge from their convertibles, if they’re lucky, or from their parents’ station wagons, if they aren’t. There are lawns and terraces where cheerleaders practise routines and skateboarders practise stunts. In Grease 2, there is even room for a full-scale song-and-dance number, Back To School Again. What more could a director ask for?

“You see the cars the characters are driving, you see who they’re meeting, you see whether they’re shunned or welcomed,” says Charlie Lyne, the director of Beyond Clueless. “These films are shot in real schools, so these spaces are all real. But, accidentally, they’re almost the perfect expositional first-act location for any movie. You can establish everything you need to know about the characters and their world, all in one opening shot.”

Next comes a shot of the school’s busy corridors. It’s a shot which, sure enough, is there in Rebel Without a Cause, and it hasn’t altered much since. Again and again, it has the trophy display cases, the hand-painted posters, and, most importantly, the rows of metal lockers – the ideal places to stash treasured photographs or under-sized geeks. For students being bullied, such as George McFly in Back to the Future, the corridor is a gauntlet to be run. For the in-crowd, such as The Plastics in Mean Girls, the corridor is a catwalk. Strut along it in a designer outfit, swishing your hair in slow motion, and you rule the school.

“The corridor in a school movie is like the main street in a Western,” says Catherine Bray. “The shot of a clique striding down the corridor is just like the shot of the four gunslingers riding into town, and the kids huddled at their lockers are like the nervous townsfolk peeping out of shop doorways. You immediately know who’s powerful and who isn’t. And unless there’s a teacher there at that precise moment, the bullies can get away with anything. It’s the Wild West.”

‘No escape’

Other key high-school locations are similarly useful and similarly unchanging, in film after film after film. There are the toilets, which have much the same function as shadowy back alleys in gangster movies: they’re the spot where deals are done, drugs are taken, and beatings are administered away from the authorities’ prying eyes (see The Craft). There are the classrooms, with their mile-wide greenboards, where literature teachers helpfully spell out the film’s themes (see 10 Things I Hate About You). There are the gym halls, which can be transformed into prom-night ballrooms (see The DUFF). There are the impossibly well-maintained playing fields, where swots have their awkward parlays with athletes (see Easy A). And, crucially, there are the cafeterias, where the people who are milling around outnumber the people who are actually eating (see Fast Times at Ridgemont High).

In Mean Girls, the school’s cafeteria is compared to a water hole in an African savannah: it’s where the prey and the predators are side by side. But it has even more in common with the canteen in a prison drama. In both genres, newcomers are taught how dangerous it can be to sit at the wrong clique’s table. And in both genres, plans are hatched and fights are started. “You could cut directly between Natasha Lyonne’s canteen scenes in American Pie, and her canteen scenes in Orange Is The New Black,” says Charlie Lyne, “and you wouldn’t see the join. It’s a sign of how insular schools are in these films. They’re like prisons in that there is almost no reality outside those walls. You rarely get to see the parents or any other adults apart from the teachers. And there’s no escape!”

The link between high-school movies and prison dramas has always been there, but at the moment it seems to be stronger than ever. Mean Girls, in particular, has been so influential that the prevailing school story now revolves around a naive tyro who has to learn to fit in, to fight back, and to get out in one piece, just as they would if they were serving a 10-year jail sentence. But whatever the challenges of high-school life in the movies, the schools themselves are always airy, clean and colourful, hence the regular Hollywood fantasy of returning there as an adult, either via subterfuge (Never Been Kissed, 21 Jump Street) or by magic (Peggy Sue Got Married, 17 Again). But maybe these films say less about the audience than they do about the film-makers. However old they are, they just can’t bear to leave school.

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