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What is the Best High School Movie?

September 12, 2006

As regular readers of this blog know, I love Entertainment Weekly. I get especially moist when they publish their lists. Their latest, the 50 Best High School Movies, is no exception, but for one glaring flaw: they named The Breakfast Club the best high school movie of all time, when the clear choice is Dazed and Confused (which they put at No. 3).

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I were just quibbling with the order of the list. I am more disturbed by their exaltation of The Breakfast Club because what that movie represents. It is an embodiment of the “big lie” of teen movies: the myth that cliques are mutually exclusive entities.

Anyone who’s been to high school in the last 30 years know that simply isn’t true. People are not either jocks or stoners, cheerleaders or drama geeks. Sometimes they’re all four, and sometimes they’re none of the above. This is not to say there is no such thing as cliques, far from it. But cliques typically have less to do with one’s extracurricular activities than with who your friends are. And those groups cut across party lines.

The brilliance of Dazed and Confused is that Richard Linklater recognizes the fluidity of high school social groupings. The mediocrity of The Breakfast Club is that it doesn’t.

I’m not nearly as big a John Hughes fans as most people my age, but I’ve enjoyed most of his teen movies, especially Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Weird Science (Anthony Michael Hall acting like a drunk Chicago bluesman? Priceless.). But the beauty of Hughes’ best movies is that they didn’t take themselves too seriously; both of those movies knew they were comic fantasies.

But in The Breakfast Club, Hughes borrows the types from his other movies–the jock, the rebel, the loner, the nerd, etc.–and treats them with grave seriousness, as if anyone were actually that shallow. Indeed, the movie seems to think that there’s something boundary-shattering about sticking all those different cliques in the same room, as if they’d never socialized before. In real life they’d all be hanging out at the same party in the town woods.

Dazed and Confused, on the other hand, never gives into such creative laziness. Nearly every character in Dazed and Confused simultaneously exists in multiple cliques: Pink is smart, a stoner and athletic; Donnie is an athlete and a druggie; Wooderson is simultaneously cool and pathetic; even the apparent dorks–Mike, Tony and Cynthia–are not outcasts.

Unlike The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused doesn’t show off its profundity: there is no dramatic finale, no one is cathartically transformed. Its brilliance is in its casual depiction of the complexity of high school social dynamics. Some of the smartest scenes are the simplest.

Early in the movie, we see Pink, Mike, Tony and Cynthia sharing a table in what clearly must be an honors class. We know that Pink is popular and by the looks and conversation of the other three, we know that they’re not. But nobody takes note of what would be so dissonant in other movies. It’s just a fact: the school’s quarterback is a smart kid, and he’s in an upper-level course. One of the “dweebs” asks Pink if he wants to join them for cards tonight, and while he politely declines, you get the sense that he has joined them for cards in the past. In the fraudulent world of The Breakfast Club, such a thing isn’t even imaginable.

As the movie progresses, you realize that people’s intimate friendships mean more than their extracurricular bonds. Sure, at school Pink and Donnie hang out with fellow jocks Benny and O’Bannion, but as the night winds down, neither of those meatheads is anywhere to be found. The same goes for Pickford and Slater, who happily share joints with anyone who wants to chill, but at the end of the night we know that they’re sharing a ride home together. And unlike nearly every other teen movie ever, no one “leads” any particular social group. Just because Pink is the quarterback doesn’t mean he has henchmen; Darla may think she’s the leader of her group, but it’s clear when she gets shit-faced at the Moontower that nobody, even her friends, particularly like her. Indeed, the only character who appears to be the leader of a group is Clint, and no one else of note hangs out with him.

Under normal circumstances, I would admire what The Breakfast Club was trying to do. It took characters we knew as cliches from other movies and scraped their souls bare. But compared to a movie of such social authenticity and precision as Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club seems no more real than an episode of Saved By the Bell. Dazed and Confused doesn’t simply overturn high school cliches–it ignores them entirely.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad Glaser permalink
    September 12, 2006 4:20 pm

    You nailed this as being a key to Dazed’s success. To a lesser extent, I think “Fast Times” reflects this reality, as well. Some of the characters are stereotypes (somewhat appropriate, as many teens live up to stereotypes,) but none of them hang only with cronies of their own kind.

    One thing that may be in effect here, though, is a difference between male and female perspectives. From talking to girlfriends and other female friends, I’ve always felt that girls feel the social pressures attendant to cliques more acutely than do guys, who seem to be more fluid in their social interaction. See “Heathers” and “Mean Girls” for a couple of great high school films that deal well with this idea.

    Are there any actual females who read this site who could weigh in?

  2. Phil permalink
    September 12, 2006 10:22 pm

    As a person who has sat with the Critic and watched this movie several times in the same weekend, I am not surprised you would choose this movie. Although I am surprised you didn’t pick up on the dramatic finale, Aerosmith Tickets “top priority of the summer”. Or Mike’s cathartic transformation from mild mannered nerd to drunken tough with beer muscles.

    Another example of there not being cliques is that Pink and Wooderson freely allow pre-frosh Mitch (aka the guy who set the record for nose touches in a single scene) to mingle and join them and they don’t seem to care that he has no pot.

  3. Jen permalink
    September 13, 2006 2:24 am

    A female voice weighing in here… although there were times back in high school when I wasn’t able to get through the whole movie due to being altered by some substances myself, today it remains one of my favorites.

    Brad’s comment made me think about my perspective on the movie and I have to say that I don’t think the movie really truly ignores the typical high school cliches and that in reality everyone is friends. I think it is really just Pink who moves fluidly between them all. He is every superlative in the yearbook: best looking, best dressed, most athletic, most likely to succeed, etc. The story is really about how he moves between each high school clique and I feel that it is maybe more a case of Linklater using Pink as his device to showcase and highlight the intimacies within each group.

    When the Critic talks about everyone hanging out together in scenes, it seems to me from my recollection that it is usually Pink fraternizing with the members of another group. (Ok, except maybe for the stoners like Slater who will hang out with anyone if pot is involved, and it was set in the 70s so most of the different groups, even if they were geeks, welcomed pot into their inner circle).
    I think the movie is more a case of showing how Pink doesn’t want to conform to any one group or to any one thing. Remember how much of the plot of the movie deals with Pink refusing to sign the football coaches no drug policy form?

    Besides Pink moving easily between all groups, and besides the fact that yes they are all at the same party in the woods, the cheerleaders generally stick with the cheerleaders and the geeks stick with the geeks.
    Oh, and yes, Pink and Wooderson do allow Mitch to hang with them for the night, but remember, he is Jodi’s little brother who Pink definitely has the hots for…so there is a reason they are so welcoming to him.

  4. September 14, 2006 11:47 pm

    Jen makes an interesting point, and it certainly helps me see the plot in a new way: as a battle on all sides (the jocks, the stoners, coach, two different girls) for Pink’s soul. Honestly, because the movie was so good at capturing the details of everyday high school life, I’ve tended not to give much thought to the plot, and always just figured Linklater made it as skeletal as possible so he could pack in as much social detail as he could.

    But I’m still not convinced that Pink is the only one who enjoys the fluidity of social cliques. What about Jodi, who is in the honors classes with Mike, Anthony and Cynthia, is one of the popular girls and is close friends with a quiet, cigarette-smoking future lesbian? What about Cynthia, who will soon be knocked up by Wooderson? And O’Bannion, while a football player, isn’t even cool enough to hang out at the Moon Tower party, where even dorks and eighth graders hang out. For some of the characters, it’s not clear what stereotypical clique they’re even supposed to belong to: Mitch’s girlfriend, for example, or Clint’s buddies. And just because Slater and Pickford would smoke weed with anybody doesn’t change the fact that they’re still able to move from clique to clique relatively effortlessly (until they get too stoned to function, at least).

  5. September 14, 2006 11:48 pm

    Oh, and one more thing: I resent the insinuation that Pink is only being nice to Mitch because he has the hots for Jodi. He’s Randall Pink Floyd; life has been so blessed for him that he’s nice to everybody–unless you try to put him a box, man.

  6. Juan permalink
    September 17, 2006 6:42 pm

    I agree “Dazed and Confused” should be at the top.

    Other favorites (in no particular order):

    Fast Times at Ridgemont High
    Say Anything
    The Last Picture Show
    Back to the Future
    American Pie
    American Graffiti

  7. September 19, 2006 2:39 am

    All of those were in EW’s top 50, with Fast Times at Ridgement High at No. 2. Good choices all, by the way. The one big miss from their list is Better Off Dead. But overall the list is quite good.

  8. October 10, 2006 4:52 pm

    I think Fast Times would be my favorite choice. I always love that movie and can’t help but watch it whenever its on. Dazed always bored me for whatever reason. I just never got into it quite like others (obviously) did.

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