Joe Nolan's top picks for back-to-school flicks

Aug 01 2017
Posted by: Staff
Joe Nolan's top picks for back-to-school flicks

By: Joe Nolan

Star-crossed love, true love, fish out of water, family drama, war and peace, the hero’s journey – there are lots of great film themes that will always inform the stories of cinema, but one of the best, most evergreen backdrops for moving pictures evokes falling leaves, ringing bells, noisy cafeterias and a lot of growing up. The back-to-school movie will always be a thing and with Metro Nashville’s students set to hit the books again, here are some of The Contributor's scholastic screen favorites: 

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
This R-rated high school comedy profiles stoners and jocks, bodacious babes and no-nonsense teachers at a San Diego high school. It sounds simple but Fast Times is more than the sum of its impressive parts – Cameron Crowe wrote the screenplay and actors Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage and Forrest Whitaker all went on to win Best Acting Oscars. This flick kicked-off a decade long run of smart teen comedies – no Fast Times no Sixteen Candles (1984)? Fast Times is currently streaming on HBO Go. 

Grease (1978)
This timeless rock ‘n’ roll musical might capture the anxious excitement of the first day of school better than any other film. Grease proved that John Travolta’s legendary turn in Saturday Night Fever was no flash in the pan, and the mythical setting of Rydell High in the 1950s is as fresh today as it was when this film first put the Broadway hit on the silver screen. Grease takes a basic odd couple tale about an innocent girl and a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, sets it to a souped-up soundtrack and doesn’t turn away from tough issues like teen pregnancy. I’m hopelessly devoted to this one. Find your way back to Rydell High on iTunes. 

Mean Girls (2004) 
Mean Girls probably owes its status as a contemporary classic to Tina Fey’s sharp, insightful, hilarious script, but the movie’s initial success was due to great performances by Rachel McAdams, SNL alum like Fey, Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer and Amy Poehler, and Lindsay Lohan as the new kid in school, Cady Heron. Mean Girls was Lohan’s last great performance as a child – she turned 18 a few months after the film was released – but the movie’s good-girl-gone-bad hijinks and genuine laughs make it a classroom classic for the ages. This one is on YouTube’s streaming service. 

The Karate Kid  (1984) 
When Daniel LaRusso and his mom move from Newark to Los Angeles, his senior year in high school gets off to a rocky start when he falls for a cheerleader named Ali with a psycho-bully ex-boyfriend – the infamous Johnny Lawrence. Like nearly every original story of every great professional fighter, Daniel turns to the martial arts to learn to defend himself from the bullies of the Cobra Kai dojo where Johnny is the top student. Of course, Daniel finds his mentor in the form of a kindly maintenance man cum Okinawan karate expert named Mister Miyagi – Pat Morita earned an Oscar nomination for the unforgettable role. Get your crane kick ready and stream this one on Amazon Video. 

Dead Poets Society (1989)
Writer Tom Schulman based Dead Poets Society on his own experiences at Nashville’s own Montgomery Bell Academy, and the film has only gained stature since Ethan Hawke has become an adult acting star and since the loss of the unforgettable Robin Williams, whose turn as the English instructor John Keating was his first great dramatic performance. Yawp barbarically as you stream this one on Google Play.

Back to School (1986)
We couldn’t compile this classroom cinema rundown without including the Rodney Dangerfield comedy classic Back to School. Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, a wealthy lout who makes a fortune selling “tall and fat” mens clothing but who never even earned a high school diploma. His son Jason (Keith Gordon) is a college freshman, but also an unpopular failure – his only friend is a smart aleck outcast played by Robert Downey Jr. The supporting cast here is full of ringers including Burt Young, Sam Kinison, Ned Beatty and the legendary Sally Kellerman as the sexy English professor who beguiles Melon with her reading of a passage by James Joyce. But the star here is Dangerfield, who finds himself in a role that makes great use of his lovable loser persona while also letting him flesh out a fully realized character in a family comedy about fathers and sons. Stream this one on Google Play.  

Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at


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