Back to school movies for the fall 2020 semester.

Matt Cotter offers his recommendations for some of the best ‘back-to-school’ movies to watch while passing the time between (or during) virtual classes. Photo Emilie Rodriguez/ The Nevada Sagebrush

It’s back-to-school season yet again, that strange time of the summer when we are mentally dragged back to the classroom with thoughts of supply sales and required reading lists. However, obviously this year it’s a bit different. Since many students won’t be returning to classrooms at all—and those that will are returning to a heavily-modified learning environment—it’s a perfect time to return to the films that evoke all the everyday trials and tribulations of the school experience … if only to remember the nostalgic normality that seems so distant nowadays.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Yeah, this movie is about high school and not college. But who cares? It remains an American classic for a reason. Despite its highly simplistic story—and by that, I mean it doesn’t really have a “story”—and stock characters, John Hughes’s iconic “Breakfast Club” manages to be a surprisingly poignant rumination on the emotional turmoil, sense of aimlessness and isolation experienced by youth of practically every generation. 

There are, no doubt, dated elements. The opening David Bowie quote complete with a cheesy glass-smashing screen wipe effect is one of note, along with the slang and the liberal use of homophobic slurs. However, the films’ ambiguous ending and realistic take on teen angst (unlike most high school comedies, there’s no climactic prom scene, no offensive sidekick characters, no absurd pranks or shenanigans, no big romance, etc.) seem quite timeless and display Hughes’s incredible talent for getting to the heart of these issues. 

“The Breakfast Club” is reflected upon by contemporary critics as somewhat narrow-viewed; with the exception of the character Bender, who comes from a low-income background with an abusive family, all the teens are from middle-class Chicago backgrounds, and all characters are straight and white. However, it’s clear that the film still strikes a chord with practically all audiences. John Singleton credits “The Breakfast Club” with inspiring him to write “Boyz in the Hood.” Singleton’s experiences might’ve been different from those in “The Breakfast Club,” but the emotional pain and sense of belonging was the same. 

“The Breakfast Club” remains iconic and profoundly raw—especially considering its decade and genre. These elements have always been a part of the American coming-of-age experience.  “The Breakfast Club” reminds us that our backgrounds, stereotypes and atmospheres do not inherently define us—it’s up to us to decide whether or not to let them.

National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)

This iconic frat-house comedy, while undoubtedly dated,  helped launch the careers of stars such as Kevin Bacon, Karen Allen, Tom Hulce, Donald Sutherland, the late John Belushi and director John Landis. 

Despite much of the humor seeming antiquated or perhaps even problematic, it’s for this reason that “Animal House” remains so fascinating. Decades after its release it remains a cultural touchstone and the gold standard for the sub-genre of sophomoric college comedy. 

And its somewhat offensive nature is actually one of its greatest strengths. “Animal House” has come full circle; it was considered offensive and raucous when first released. Over the years it became something of a relic, unable to compete with the increasingly dark, outrageous and provocative humor of similar ‘late-night comedies’ such as “Old School” or “Team America: World Police.” 

Now, it is again seen as a piece of consistently line-crossing comic cinema. And for that alone, it is worthy of a watch so viewers can decide for themselves whether “Animal House” stands the test of time, or if it deserves to be left behind. 

Grease (1978)

Musicals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. But “Grease” is another example of a film that rises above most other staples of its genre.

Often derided as a cheesy throwback film that gives some very mixed messages in the finale—many critics revile the fact that Sandy changes herself for a man in the film’s climax—anyone paying attention will find most of “Grease” is actually subtly critical of 1950s culture, and it’s nostalgic fairy tale-esque sheen is only surface level and highly ironic.

“Grease” also has legitimately good music, and is actually a pretty funny movie at times. It’s purely an exercise in style and excess, as most musicals are, so if viewers can put aside expectations for complex plots and character arcs and just enjoy it as a pure spectacle, “Grease” will not disappoint.

And if you like “Grease” already, I’d recommend George Lucas’s pre-“Star Wars” sleeper hit “American Graffiti,” which deals with a group of high school friends in 1962–basically just the 50s still—going about a series of aimless misadventures in their hometown on their graduation night while pondering what to do with the rest of their lives. 

Heathers (1986)

“Heathers” is like “Mean Girls,” except it came out about twenty years earlier and is significantly more morbid. Starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, it tackles the idea of cliques and popularity in a far more sinister way, while dealing with ideas ranging from teen suicide to rampant homophobia. 

Slater’s character J.D., with his spooky demeanor, black trench coat and sociopathic tendencies seems like a commentary on school shooters or unstable teenage killers which have permeated the news media and pop culture over the past twenty years. Yet “Heathers” predates Columbine by over a decade, proving just how prophetic and uncomfortable the film really is. Deconstructing the moody outsider archetype, Slater’s character is genuinely deranged and dangerous.

Ryder, as always, is incredibly charming and deadpan, bringing a terrifically snarky energy to Veronica Sawyer, while remaining vulnerable and human.

Scream 2 (1997)

Finally, what “back-to-school” list would be complete without a slasher film? Probably most of them—but not this one.

Following up on the smash hit of the first “Scream,” Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s satirical horror-mystery-comedy “Scream 2” boasts an all-star cast, some genuinely thrilling sequences, some gorgeously shot campus locations at UCLA and Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, a compelling whodunit plot and a lot of that nostalgic late 90s cheese that’s hard to really describe. It’s a period of studio filmmaking somehow so laughable and artificial, while being charming, comfortable and appealing. 

While it’s hard to necessarily enjoy “Scream 2” to its full potential without first seeing the original, it’s actually quite rare among slasher films. Viewers can still watch this film relatively unaware of the first film, with the second film re-establishing all of the original characters.  

I’m mostly recommending “Scream 2” because I like it—and the whole series—a lot, and it’s a ton of fun if you’re in the right mood; with school back in session and Halloween not too far off, it might be a good time to revisit the entire series over the next month or so. 

Matt Cotter can be reached at erodriguez@sagebrush.unr.edu or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush