First published in West Briton 14 April 2011 and Little White Lies
Whether featuring in Rebel Without a Cause, Heathers, Rushmore, Grease or the more recent all-singing-and-dancing High School Musical and small screen counterpart Glee, the high school remains one of the most well-trodden locations of American cinema. The setting offers plenty of easy to grasp archetypes – the Freaks & Geeks, in the parlance of Judd Apatow’s well-observed (and highly recommended) TV series – but it is in the shared experience that these films truly win over their audience. By riffing on the commonalities between our lives and those coming of age on screen, the films ensure that no member of the audience is ever entirely excluded from its drama.
The Breakfast Club, written and directed by John Hughes, offers perhaps the definitive lesson of the genre. Coincidentally shot in the same Illinois high school as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, five teenagers are tasked by the evil Principal Vernon to define themselves in a 1000-word essay, to be written during their nine hours spent together in a Saturday detention. As the day progresses the five realise that more unites than separates them. As Anthony Michael Hall’s ‘Brain’ Johnson explains in a letter to Vernon, each are far more than simply “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal” before noting, “in the end, you learn maybe we’re more alike than we realize, and that’s kind of cool.” How’s that for a unifying message?
In her 2007 documentary American Teen, filmmaker Nanette Burstein took up residence in Warsaw, Indiana to record the escapades of high school students Hannah, Colin, Megan, Mitch and Jake. Perhaps surprisingly, the five central characters initially slip neatly into those hardy archetypes of The Breakfast Club – brain, beauty, jock, rebel and recluse. Like its fictional predecessor however, the film triumphs through its exploration of the cracks that fall between these definitions, whether that’s the jock caught between his team and college recruiters, or the heartthrob who reveals a soft centre. The star of the piece is Hannah, who dreams of abandoning the mid-west not to rebel, but fit in; ostracised in Indiana, she hopes to find like-minded liberals in California.
This ambition echoes that of the characters that populate Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 movie The Last Picture Show, re-released in cinemas this week. Set in the dead end Texan town of Anarene, the film features an almost unrecognisable Jeff Bridges in one of his earliest roles – Duane Jackson, captain of the school football team. Though set in the early 1950s, the film privileges everything that remains important to teenagers with music, movies, heartbreak and motor cars all featuring prominently but, as in all the best high school movies, the film also considers those more pressing questions – how do we get out of this place, and what will become of us? As Sam the Lion, owner of the town’s teenage hangouts, says in his heartrending monologue, “I’m just as sentimental as the next fellah, when it comes to old times.” To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, “youth is wasted on the young.”
The Last Picture Show opens Friday in selected cinemas. The Breakfast Club and American Teen are both available on DVD.