For many teenagers, high school is the ninth circle of hell. Films about that period of time capture the volatility of adolescent emotions, the physical act of growing up, navigating social circles, exploring first love, and experiencing general self-actualization. Their settings can sometimes harshly reflect reality, while others can offer a fun-house mirror—emphasis on the fun—for activities and adventures. As students across the country head back to the classroom, The A.V. Club has catalogued 14 fictional high schools where cool, crazy, traumatic, and transformative stuff has gone down. So, slip into your denim jacket, grab those No. 2 pencils, and take a look at the most memorable high schools ever captured on film.
Bedford Falls High School—It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life doesn’t spend a lot of time in the main character’s high school, but that time remains unforgettable—not the least of which because a crucial part of it still exists today. George Bailey (James Stewart) returns home to Bedford Falls and is catching up with friends at a high school dance when one of those pals asks him to step lively with his younger sister Mary (Donna Reed).
As they perform the Charleston, Stewart and Reed’s chemistry is palpable, at least until Mary’s jealous suitor tries to ruin the moment by retracting the dance floor—which just happens to be over a swimming pool. George and Mary make the best of it, dancing and laughing as they fall into the water, creating a joyous moment in a joyous film in a location that survives nearly 80 years later! These days, it’s called The Swim-Gym, and according to the Beverly Hills High School website, “It is still enjoyed today by Beverly Hills High School students and the residents of the community.”
Bates High School—Carrie (1976)
Nothing, and we mean absolutely nothing is destined to go right at a school named after Norman Bates—and in Carrie, all sorts of trauma befalls poor Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). We can spend hours debating who treated her worse, her nasty classmates or her religious fanatic mom (Piper Laurie). But Brian De Palma nails the pivotal sequence in which several fellow students dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her in the school gym on prom night, but that merely sets the stage for the unleashing of Carrie’s fury–and powers.
Right there in the gym at Bates High, she traps and kills students and teachers alike, setting the place ablaze in spectacular fashion, electrocuting people, and crushing them with falling debris. It’s a bravura sequence that looks and feels real (unlike the similar scene in the 2013 Carrie reboot, which relied too heavily on CG). Bates High School can be ruthless to folks who are a little fragile, but Carrie’s revenge offers a vivid reminder to keep an exit nearby if you’re planning to prank a classmate.
Rydell High School—Grease (1978)
Despite casting that makes some of these high school seniors look more like the parents of high school seniors, director Randal Kleiser’s musical-comedy Grease vividly captures so much of that glorified 1950s era, with everything from the clothes, the lingo, the diners, and souped-up cars, to Rydell High itself. The halls pop with life and energy and school spirit, especially during the nationally televised American Bandstand-style dance-off, and the brief moments given over to the staff—including Eve Arden as Principal McGee, Sid Caesar as Coach Calhoun, and Dody Goodman as the daffy, xylophone-dinging Ms. Hodel—are utterly charming.
As a protean version of the cliques that show up in some of this list’s other schools, or a cartoonish escape from the more complex challenges faced by later generations, this particular school reiterates the universal truth about adolescents, which is that well all go together through this experience—there’s even a song about it!
Vince Lombardi High School—Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (1979)
It’s 1980 and Riff Randell (P.J. Soles), the most delinquent of the many singing, dancing, and hard-partying delinquents at Vince Lombardi High School, loves her some rock and roll, and she especially digs the Ramones. She will do anything to get Joey Ramone to play a song she’s written for the band. Anarchy reigns in the school’s halls and classrooms, at least until a shrewish new principal, Miss Togar (Mary Woronov), arrives and tries to bring order to the chaos.
There’s so much to love about Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, starting with a post-Halloween Soles, who exudes energy and warmth, even if she was already way too old to be playing a high schooler. Woronov is great, as is her frequent scene partner Paul Bartel (cast here as a music teacher; try not to smile when he dances like a madman to the Ramones). The soundtrack is killer, with tracks by the Ramones, Nick Lowe, Devo, Brownsville Station, Chuck Berry, and Brian Eno. And while the Ramones are far, far, far from thespians, it’s fun to see and hear them in action and captured for posterity. Lastly, the final scenes—spoiler?!—where the kids, joined by the Ramones, blow up the school, is almost certainly something that couldn’t be put on screen today. Now, that’s anarchy!
Ridgemont High School—Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Cameron Crowe wrote Fast Times At Ridgemont High based on his own book, Fast Times At Ridgemont High: A True Story. Director Amy Heckerling elicits big laughs, particularly the classroom clashes between stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) and the hair-trigger Mr. Hand (Ray Walston); Linda (Phoebe Cates) fulfills teenage fantasies in an iconic dream sequence, and then dashes those dreams with a less-than-happy ending for Brad (Judge Reinhold); and Forest Whitaker offers terrifying menace as super-intense football player Jefferson.
But, what sets Fast Times apart from other films of its ilk is its heart. We care about Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Linda’s less sexually experienced best friend. We relate to Mark (Brian Backer), the perfectly average kid who likes Stacy. There’s frank talk about sex, abortion, love, and life after high school, and much of it comes to pass in the halls and cafeteria at Ridgemont High. As a bonus, be on the lookout for several actors who’d soon be major stars: Nicolas Cage (billed as Nicolas Coppola), Eric Stoltz, and Anthony Edwards.
Shermer High School—The Breakfast Club (1985)
The late, great John Hughes captured so many of our high school experiences in his films 16 Candles, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But he really struck a nerve with The Breakfast Club, which unforgettably catalogued the personality types we still define for kids in high school: a nerd (Anthony Michael Hall), a jock (Emilio Estevez), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a basket case (Ally Sheedy), and a criminal (Judd Nelson) all serve detention together on a Saturday. They bicker, complain, cry, dance, and ultimately discover they’re not so different from one another.
The film works so well in large part because we’re all one (or more) of these five archetypes/stereotypes and we’ve interacted with the others. It also helped that Hughes shot exteriors (arriving and leaving school, the iconic fist pump) outside a real (and shuttered) school in Chicago. What’s fascinating is that the library in The Breakfast Club, where most of the movie unfolds, was a set constructed within the gym of that school. Few, if any, school libraries resemble this one: spiffy and new, brightly lit, an open space, and bi-level, with an ideal spot for dancing. But it’s perfect here, providing a space for the characters to let their guard down.
Rushmore Academy—Rushmore (1998)
As with all of Wes Anderson’s films, the setting of his 1998 sophomore film is a meticulously designed dollhouse where his idiosyncratic characters play. Rushmore Academy is not only the site of young Max Fischer’s education, but it becomes a metaphor for the ambitions and desires of him and his counterparts, both adolescent and adult: Max uses it as a playground for feverish creativity, an escapist sanctuary where he offsets academic mediocrity with dozens of clubs and organizations; Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) retreats into what was a cornerstone of her late husband’s upbringing to alleviate her grief; and Herman Blume (Bill Murray) envies and admires the reckless freedom Max enjoys while shuffling unhappily through the responsibilities of his affluent but joyless adulthood.
Like the best schools in movies, Rushmore is the kind of educational facility you would love to attend, even if its nostalgic, autumnal decor serves only as a distraction, and not true protection, from the tough realities everyone experiences while growing up.
Padua High School—10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
One of the best high school movies ever made, 10 Things I Hate About You elevated Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt into stars to watch. But another breakout from the film—a high school spin on The Taming Of The Shrew—was unquestionably Stadium High School, the school in Tacoma, Washington, whose halls Ledger, Stiles, and Gordon-Levitt roam. The place is a freaking castle, a visual wonder that the camera just loves. And no sequence better exemplifies that point than the one in which Ledger famously croons “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”
As Ledger dances and sings across the bleachers, evades school security (even playfully bopping a guard in the butt), and utterly charms the tough-to-crack Stiles, the massive school building provides a stunning backdrop. Eventually, the scene ends perfectly with a shot back inside the building … of the door to the detention room. And perfection doesn’t take long; the whole scene from start to finish unfolds in two minutes and 20 seconds.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—the Harry Potter film series (2001-2011)
Harry Potter fans tend to minimize director-producer Chris Columbus’ contributions to the film franchise, but not only did he introduce J.K. Rowling’s magical world to millions of moviegoers around the globe, and choose Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and so many of the other actors, but he created the visual landscape of Hogwarts, which subsequent filmmakers only built out in more detail in subsequent installments.
Columbus, even more to the point, elevated Hogwarts into a character. It’s a place where the impossible happens, dreams are crushed, children mature into young adults, characters die, lessons are learned, etc. Around every corner, threats lurk, puzzles must be solved, paintings laugh at you, Moaning Myrtle haunts a bathroom, protests are staged, and wonders never cease—from the Sorting Hat to floating candelabras in the Great Hall to Buckbeak soaring in the sky above.
Midtown High School—Spider-Man (2002)
Sam Raimi made great use of the high school setting in the Spider-Man film that started it all. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is an outsider, a bit of a dork, and socially awkward. He’s as uncomfortable in his own skin as he is walking the halls of Midtown High School. Jocks bully Peter and girls ignore him. Then, after a radioactive spider bites Peter—which happens during a field trip to Columbia University—he develops superpowers, emerging at Midtown High as a new version of himself, not just imbued with Spidey senses and all of that, but with self-esteem and confidence.
Two great scenes take place in Midtown High—more or less part of the same sequence, as Peter begins to discover what he can do with his newfound powers. First, Peter deftly catches dream girl Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) with one arm and her lunch tray after she slips. And after accidentally throwing that same food on his would-be bully, Flash (Joe Mangianello), he avoids retaliation by dodging punches, flipping in the air, and sending Flash cascading down the hall with a punch of his own. It’s a moment of wide-eyed triumph for Peter, but it concerns a confused M.J., impresses Harry Osborn (James Franco), and prompts one of Flash’s bully pals to call Peter a “freak.” And, yes, he’s a high school freak, but now a freak with kick-ass powers.
North Shore High School—Mean Girls (2004)
Tina Fey wrote Mean Girls based on Rosalind Wiseman’s book Queen Bees and Wannabes, and she plopped moviegoers into North Shore High School, where the Plastics (Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, and Amanda Seyfried) rule, and everyone else barely exists. Lindsay Lohan beautifully plays Cady, the eyes and ears of the audience, a new arrival torn between the appeal and power of the Plastics, and her outsider friends (Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Franzese), who are justifiably contemptuous of them.
Trouble starts when Cady infiltrates the Plastics and gets caught doing so by the vengeful queen bee Regina (McAdams), setting in motion the distribution of a “Burn Book” that reveals the secrets of the school’s students and staff. The scene in which the students rage against each other in North Shore High’s halls is at once violent, disturbing, hysterically funny, and cathartic, and it’s staged brilliantly by Mark Waters, who’d previously directed Lohan in another well-received high school movie, Freaky Friday.
Sky High School—Sky High (2005)
Released in 2005, Sky High is sort of a live-action The Incredibles, about a seemingly average kid, Will (Michael Angarano), who discovers he’s the son of beloved superheroes Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). Consequently, he transfers to Sky High, a high school situated, yes, way up in the clouds. There, hard-driving Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell) separates the Heroes from the Sidekicks—and in this caste system, no one wants to be a sidekick.
The school interiors resemble a futuristic yet familiar version of a modern, Earth-bound building, but it’s the wide shots—filmed from above, and realized in large part with CG, with yellow buses coming in for landings—that give Sky High a playful, unique look. In addition to the talented Angarano, the impressive cast includes rising stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Steven Strait, and Danielle Panabaker. Plus, any school that boasts the effervescent Lynda Carter as its principal is okay with us.
East High School—High School Musical franchise (2006-2019)
Among a lot of high schools that provided the backdrop for assorted horrors, be they physical or emotional, it felt only right to include East High School, a place of higher learning out in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the kids can—and do—flourish. The halls are open and bright and cheery. Teachers and coaches support their students. The students support each other. Programs, from dance to sports, are top-notch. The conflicts are minimal. Can hunky basketball star Troy (Zac Efron) keep his head in the game when he’s attracted to newcomer Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens)? What no good nonsense are super-nosey Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and her twin/lackey Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) up to?
It’s all fun, colorful fantasy, played to the hilt by a game, gorgeous cast, who are complemented by superb songs and the easygoing direction of Kenny Ortega. The choreographor-turned-director directed all three High School Musical movies, the third of which was released in theaters, thus the franchise’s inclusion here.
Sagan High School—21 Jump Street (2012)
Phil Lord and Chris Miller have repeatedly demonstrated an aptitude for turning questionable ideas into terrific movies. In 21 Jump Street, they not only update the heavily dated 1980s and ’90s teen-cop series of the same name, but reinvent the tropes of teen movies by taking two adolescent stereotypes—the nerd and the jock—and reversing their stature within that world’s social hierarchy. Lord and Miller further amplify this reversal by catapulting them into the then-thoroughly-contemporary Sagan High School, where smart, hard-working, socially conscious kids are popular, and the athletes are decidedly less beloved.
Hilariously, the school’s principal, played by Jake Johnson, is not the hard-nosed rule follower of the Breakfast Club days, but a jaded slacker who acknowledges the need for rules but is largely more interested in self-preservation than in the true needs of the school. But its social and educational priorities are sort of the exact opposite of what a lot of us who went through have come to expect, and that swap pays off hilarious dividends.