A brief guide to films about school
Early September is one of the most evocative times of the year, and not just because Summer is waning, and with it, its promises.
No, it’s because this is when the schools go back after their longest holiday. Everyone who's ever attended school remembers what that’s like, that feeling of freedom curtailed, and it doesn’t take much to stir the memory, no matter how long ago you abandoned full-time education.
It's in that spirit of nostalgia that we turn our attentions here to films set in school, a cinematic OFSTED inspection to find which movies are top of the class—and which deserve a long spell in detention.
Although education is a popular topic for movies, filmmakers are not interested in representing all age groups equally. Most films set in the classroom focus on teenagers, with those in junior school getting short shrift indeed.
Not always, of course. There’s Kindergarten Cop, which would betray its title were it set anywhere but a nursery (a nursery, no less, where policeman Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone undercover for reasons that need not detain us).
The nippers in School of Rock are a bit older—edging into double figures—but, as with Kindergarten Cop, their youth is very much part of the joke: teacher Jack Black is instructing his charges in the noble art of Rock ‘n’ Roll and it wouldn’t be as funny if they were surly teenagers.
The best film about early years education is a documentary. Etre et Avoir follows a teacher in a rural French school, one Monsieur Lopez, across the course of a year as he carefully, patiently, diligently guides his pupils, helping them learn how to read and write—and how to get along with each other. Aaah, bless.
In Mean Girls, a character played by Lindsay Lohan) is enrolled at a US High School. Having spent 12 years in Africa, where her scientist parents have been working, she is confused by customs, rituals and tribes far more bizarre than any her mum and dad studied.
It's a feeling British viewers will understand all too well: things like The Breakfast Club or Fast Times at Ridgemont High show High School to be very different to British educational establishments, sometimes thrillingly so—the American custom of the prom has lately been imported to these shores by people who’ve seen them in the movies (what’s wrong with the humble school disco, eh?).
Most high school movies seem to have been made by people who can’t have enjoyed their school days very much: why else would their movies be so concerned with revenge? Most famously, there are the various iterations of Stephen King’s Carrie—note to bullies: if you are going to victimise people, it’s probably best to pick on those who don’t have telekinetic powers.
The cool kids get it in the neck again in Heathers, a film in which Winona Ryder and Christian Slater take down the ruling clique (with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm).
Less happily, there’s Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a film about the most inexplicable American school tradition of the lot, the high school shooting.
High school features but briefly in the best American school movie of recent years. Rushmore is named for the private school where it's set and where its main character Max Fischer excels at extra-curricular activity. But circumstances take Max to the other side of the tracks; it turns out that locals find high school every bit as bewildering as those who know it from films.
Children are simple creatures and their opinion of the teachers is—usually—correspondingly straightforward—she is very nice; he is a right old grump etc.
Movies often have a similarly one-dimensional approach to the teaching profession. Sometimes, movie teachers are bad—everyone had at least one with that reputation, even if few have been as bad as Mr. Woodcock or the titular villainess of Teaching Mrs. Tingle.
Mostly, though, they stick to hero worship—the saintly pedagogue who defies convention and opens up a whole new world of learning. Dead Poet’s Society is the best-known example of this; Robin Williams stars as a teacher for whom "inspirational" is a quiveringly inadequate description—he teaches! He fires imaginations! He does that serious face that Robin Williams used to do in the sad bits of his films!
Just occasionally, though, some films allow teachers an inner life—the desiccated Latin master played by Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version, for instance, who realises what little impact he has made upon his school and his pupils. He isn’t even a figure of fun.
Maggie Smith faces even crueller revelations in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, while in Alexander Payne’s splendid black comedy Election, Matthew Broderick throws professional responsibility to the wind to sabotage the chances of (an admittedly ghastly) young woman of being elected president of the student body.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
There’s a lesson (Boom! Boom!) here: great teachers might change pupils’ lives, but it’s the flawed ones who make for better movies.
It’s striking just how many school films—British ones at least—are set in the rarified world of the boarding school even though most of their audience will have absolutely no experience of them. They’re nearly as alien as American high schools.
And yet filmmakers persist: A Feast At Midnight, The Awakening, any of the numerous St. Trinians saga...
This is not to say such films cannot be good: you only need to take a look at the profoundly wonderful The Happiest Days of Your Life to know the lie of that—that’s the film where a boy’s school presided over by Alastair Sim is forcibly merged with an establishment for girls commanded by Margaret Rutherford at her most formidable; you certainly don’t need to know anything about English public schools, nor even the state of post-war education to enjoy it.
The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)
Just as equally, you don’t need to know anything about magic to enjoy the Harry Potter series (which is probably just as well...). J K Rowling’s books, and their subsequent cinematic iterations offer a more meritorious approach to boarding school education but still carry over some familiar plot points (sneaking about after lights out, cocking a snook at unpleasant authority figures and—in the earlier episodes at least—ending with a slap-up feast).
Perhaps significantly, though, those books (and the later films) were written by someone who had never been to boarding school. Lindsay Anderson, by contrast, had and his opinion of them was significantly less rosy. That can be seen in his meisterwerk If..., a loath-letter to the public school system and the arrogance and ineffectuality of such places (and, by extension, the country its graduates went on to rule).
Anderson even slipped the knife in further by filming it at his own alma mater, Cheltenham College; as we watch the climax—an armed disruption of Speech Day—it’s not hard to wonder if the director was indulging a long-nurtured fantasy.
As mentioned above, British films are instinctively drawn to the more elite establishments but that’s not to say that comprehensive education has been neglected. However, when it's shown, it’s seldom featured to its best advantage.
Put it this way: when the most favourable depiction of state education comes in Carry On Teacher, there's something of a problem. At least the school there is basically functional.
The one in To Sir With Love most definitely isn’t, and the kids who go there have been rejected from more salubrious establishments: luckily, Sidney Poitier is on hand to inspire them. (They also have Lulu to sing what must be one of the very best 1960s theme songs):
Things have got even worse by the time of F, a Hoodie Horror in which an English teacher discovers school discipline is in an even more parlous state than previously suspected.
Mention should also be made of Kes. Granted, it’s not really "about" school but it has some vivid scenes set there that highlight how the kids are failed by a system that’s simply processing them for drudgery and disappointment.
For an idea of how British filmmakers might honestly show modern state education, let us turn our gaze across the channel once more. The Class, which won the Palme d’Or in 2008, is adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by François Bégaudeau (who here plays himself), based on his own tenure as a teacher in the inner city. It’s realistic but not gloomy, and optimistic without being "inspirational": it shows the difficulties of teaching, but also the rewards.
The Class (2008)
School is a foundational experience of almost every life, whether it's enjoyed or despised (or even just accepted). The wonder isn’t that there are so many movies about school—the wonder is that there aren’t more.
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