1980s high school movies are a mixed bag, with the plethora of cult teen films ranging tonally from dick jokes to contemplations on mortality (sometimes even within the same film).
Of course the high-school set films of the ‘80s found room for the dances, clique conflicts and high-concept pranks that remain mainstays of today’s teen movies, but they could also be profound, insightful and, above all, sympathetic to the teenage plights they depicted.
John Hughes, of course, is celebrated in this regard. His The Breakfast Club (1985) famously probes the psyches of its diverse protagonists, gradually peeling back the layers of each one in order to transform them from archetypes to fully-formed characters. This takes place within the most mundane of settings; Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois. With the characters being forced to attend an all-day Saturday detention, there couldn’t be a clearer symbol for the liminal entrapment of teenagerdom.
In Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) the high school, where teens are under the jurisdiction of adults, is again presented as a place to be avoided whenever possible. Ferris (Matthew Broderick) organises his day off around playing at being an adult; driving his pal Cameron’s father’s car and impersonating a prominent businessman at a fancy restaurant, using his boyish charm to get away with it all. It’s the best of both worlds.
Trapped between the children parents and teachers still see them as and the not-yet-determined adult lives they’ll one day lead, ‘80s teen characters are some of the best ever written for mainstream cinema. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Breakfast Club. Brian’s (Anthony Michael Hall) opening voice over exposes teacher Mr Vernon’s (Paul Gleason) view of his prisoners for the day:
You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.
As the film shows its audience how the teens come to understand each other beyond these superficial labels, Hughes’ writing combines with the committed performances of Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy and Emilio Estevez, ultimately achieving characterisation which transcends the stereotypes typically represented in teen films (and memorably riffed on in Mean Girls).
Garry Mulholland says of The Breakfast Club’s opening: ‘In three minutes, we are able to understand not only that this is a high school movie about troubled teens, but that, as far as Hughes is concerned, it’s the very stereotypes created and established by teen fiction that are the major reason for the travails of the angst-ridden adolescent’ (Stranded at the Drive-In). Indeed, throughout the era’s high-school set films, how teens are perceived by their parents, teachers and peers is a major source of both angst and narrative conflict. As a result, parents and especially teachers are rendered villainous caricatures in The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Why should Hughes’ characterisation, so strong elsewhere, stumble here? Because Mr Vernon and Ferris Bueller’s repulsive Mr Mooney (Jeffrey Jones) are glimpsed through the eyes of the teen characters.
Estevez’s Andrew Clark in The Breakfast Club is a prominent example of a teen living inside the pressure-cooker of his parents’ expectations. At either end of the decade the prep school set Class (Lewis John Carlino, 1983) and Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989) also presented characters of this kind. In the latter, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) comes from an ambitious family, and suffers a father who refuses to support or even tolerate his acting ambitions. In the caricature mould of Messrs Vernon and Mooney, Neil’s father (Kurtwood Smith) comes across as a single-minded agent of cruelty – until it’s too late. His simplicity stands out as a weakness in strong film, particularly in comparison to the development of the film’s central adult character, Robin Williams’ Mr Keaton.
In both Class and Dead Poets Society groups of schoolboy characters are individuated by means of a few defining characteristics. For instance, amongst the rekindled Dead Poets Society, Knox Overstreet is the lovesick teenager we all root for, and Meeks is the bright spark always willing to help out his more intellectually challenged friends. Class launched the careers of several young actors who would go on to shine in later ‘80s hits; a young John Cusack is class clown Roscoe, Ferris Bueller’s flawless Alan Ruck appears as the butt of many a joke, and an at times insufferable Rob Lowe is the wealthy Skip.
Where Dead Poets Society is a touching, thought-provoking and inspiring depiction of unconventional teaching and the reactions it can incite, Class is filled with ridiculous (yet glorious) set pieces, and features Lowe in various costumes including women’s underwear and full Jesus get-up. Both manifest the motif of high school as entrapment, with Class’ protagonists nicknaming Vernon Academy ‘Vermin’, and the boys of Dead Poets Society dubbing Welton ‘Hellton’.
Class’ best moment by far is Skip’s altercation with a Private Investigator interviewing students to ascertain if any have cheated on their SATs. The son of a wealthy and historical family, Skip is incorrectly read by the investigator, who stereotypes him as a hot-housed student who’s crumbled under the pressure of parental expectation and resorted to purchasing stolen test papers. Skip’s reaction perfectly encapsulates the anger ‘80s teen characters experience after being reduced to stereotypes by the adults around them.
Both Dead Poets Society and Class follow a ‘new guy’ formula, with Todd (Ethan Hawke) and Jonathon (Andrew McCarthy) new to their respective schools. Todd’s character arc is a natural and gradual one; thanks to his convincingly crafted friendship with Neil, and his benefitting from Mr Keaton’s teachings perhaps more than most of the boys, Todd grows in confidence exponentially and is able to bring about a fitting tribute to his unfairly dismissed teacher. Like the principals of The Breakfast Club, Class’ Jonathon is a victim of others’ reductive views of him, and his attempts to prove them wrong are drastic, disturbing and sometimes hilarious.
Though it features the familiar sets of bathrooms, classrooms and canteen, Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988) is a different beast entirely. Here Winona Ryder is Veronica, trapped between the friend she’s outgrown but not able to fully embrace the ‘friendship’ of the three eponymous Heathers, proto-Plastics who maintain school hierarchy through a regime of organised bitchery.
Heathers’ begins in media res with Veronica severely fed up with the catty Heathers, and quickly develops a bizarre, extreme and tongue-in-cheek narrative in which new flame J.D. (Christian Slater) convinces Veronica to reclaim her life by murdering them. With its girl-on-girl crime and fabricated teen idiolect, Heathers has clearly influenced teen films such as Juno, Mean Girls and Jennifer’s Body, yet it remains unique. This is one high school film that, like many characters before it, refuses to be pigeonholed.