This Friday, the award-winning documentary American Teen (it snagged the Directing Award at Sundance this year) opens in theatres. With the advent of this new (verite) look at the archetypal high school experience, this seemed like a germane time to reflect on some of the most memorable portraits of teen-centric educational institutions in contemporary popular culture.
The following listicle is obviously an incomplete (and very subjective) survey, representative of the high-schools-on-celluloid (and video) that are closest to my heart. Feel free to add suggestions in the comments section.
Beverly HIlls 90210
The ultimate privileged glimpse into the lives of conspicuously consumerist kidlets, with the added value of Very Important Messages (don't drink and drive! Don't buy street drugs from dudes sporting shirts with the number 4! It's cool to be a virgin!) in every episode. Like a Twinkie with nominal nutritional benefits.
A Jane Austen update that poked fun at adolescents whose values were even more rooted in materialism than their peers on 90210.
The bespectacled, cynical protagonist of this Beavis & Butthead spin-off became a heroine to a generation of smart-assed, awkward girls who valued critical thought over visiting the mall.
Kids who lived the dream of wearing stirrup tights and balancing academics with their innate awareness that they gotta sing and gotta dance. Spandex-tastic.
Before Sarah Jessica Parker became a chain-smoking, freelancing, hopeless romantic icon for legions of thirty-something singletons, she channeled charming geek Patty Greene on this short-lived '80s cult dramedy about odd ducks.
The Breakfast Club
Any John Hughes movie is enough to trigger an avalanche of high school nostalgia, but the Breakfast Club's detention-as-trial-by-fire set-up ("They were five total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time") and archetypal characters ("A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse") became part of the postmodern pubescent vernacular.
Party Of Five
A family of kids! Without parents! Just trying to get by! Whilst struggling with of alcoholism, potential foreclosure and dating losers. Awesomely maudlin.
Saved By The Bell
A crucial addition to the coming-of-age-in-the-early-'90s canon. Despite the bad writing, laughable acting, terrible laugh track and eyeball-searing fashion choices, the Bayside gang somehow struck a chord with an entire generation. In a so-bad-it-was-actually-kinda-great way. Revisit Elizabeth Berkeley's journey into caffeine pill madness and you'll understand why.
Welcome Back, Kotter
Before John Travolta became a creepy Scientologist, he oozed goofy charm as a meathead Sweathog. And oy, Gabe Kaplan -- what a mensch!
Before Katie Holmes became a creepy Scientologist, she oozed squeaky-clean charm as girl-next-door Joey. And oy, that hyperverbal dialogue!
Stay tuned for Part II (My So-Called Life, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, High School Musical and more!)...
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