The race to resume in-person learning at colleges has already gone about as badly as you’d expect, from immediate outbreaks to the frightening boxed lunches in an effort to avoid them. As schools at all levels juggle the prospect of staggered schedules and virtual classes, it’s certain that this school year won’t be anything like the movies or Target commercials. So, what better time to watch one? The best back-to-school movies walk the necessary tightrope between adolescent discomfort, raunchy pubescent discovery, and the day-to-day ennui of being stuck in a pointless routine that won’t mean anything a decade or two down the road. The following films won’t serve as a replacement for huddling in a crowded auditorium or skipping chemistry class, but in many cases offer the next best thing.
Napoleon Dynamite (Starz)
A permanent fixture for the encyclopedic movie quotes Type of Guy, Napoleon Dynamite can either be understood as a product of its time or a timeless classic. I watched this again recently, and was shocked by how many lines were still lodged in the brain and how brilliantly the physical comedy works. It's both viscerally gross — think smashed tater tots in the pocket — and captures the quotidian rhythms of western Mormon malaise as well as any film. You can point to the Wes Anderson mannerisms and stark color palette, but this is a singular masterstroke all its own, with inimitable performances.
School of Rock (HBO)
An expert in the school movie canon — Dazed and Confused, of course, and the debilitatingly horny Everybody Wants Some!! — Richard Linklater's entry with the broadest appeal is also one of his best. Jack Black found his essence here as Dewey Finn, and he never really had to do anything else after this. I came to this one at the exact right time — around the same age as the kids in this movie, with Led Zeppelin IV glued into the CD player — but it’s held up every bit as well in the decades to follow. It’s both Linklater’s funniest and sweetest film, riding Black’s chemistry with the perfectly cast tweens to classic status. No Vacancy still rocks, though.
I took way too long to see this one, only watching for the first time this summer, but yeah, you guys weren’t kidding around. Alicia Silverstone is incredible in this kitschy ‘90s update to Emma that went ahead and became the perfect teen comedy. It’s hard to overstate how eminently quotable and lived-in this feels, letting its teenage tropes stop well short of caricature. Dan Hedaya could be the best movie father to ever do it, and “You think the death of Sammy Davis left an opening in the rat pack?” won’t ever stop rattling around in my head.
The infamous gym set piece serves as a pretty obvious metaphor for this year’s back-to-school season, doesn’t it? Brian De Palma’s first mainstream hit would introduce his best sensational tricks to a wide audience, from the split-screen pandemonium to the meticulous long take leading up to the bucket drop. The guy knows how to drum up a perfect ending, and adapt a Stephen King novel to the author’s liking.
Eighth Grade (Amazon Prime)
Arguably as much of a horror film as the previous entry, Bo Burnham’s strikingly good debut burrowed its way deep into the modern social media psyche. Focusing on 13-year-old Kayla and her fledgling YouTube presence, Burnham finds the spine-tingling terror of middle school, when everything’s moldable and at its anxious worst. This is the rare movie to draw its cringes more from the character’s breathless navigation of social media rather than its directors poor understanding of those platforms. Oh, and it probably won’t make you miss the in-person school experience all that much.
Love & Basketball (Philo)
Twenty years before Gina Prince-Bythewood would wade into blockbuster territory with The Old Guard on Netflix, she debuted with Love & Basketball. School isn’t just what’s in the classroom, but a vessel to launch sporting careers for Quincy and Monica, two phenoms-in-waiting with their eyes trained on the pros. Ahead of its time in capturing the gender disparity in sporting of all levels, it’s also just a fleet, effortless romantic drama that still feels like too much of an exception two decades later.
Lady Bird (Netflix)
Greta Gerwig’s a master of the warm weighted blanket movie. With remarkable pacing and excess empathy for every character burdened by crushing economic stresses and the Iraq War’s ambient dread, it’s never heavy-handed in its pathos. High school’s just a stepping stone for Lady Bird, chasing a different coast and lifestyle, but she can’t outrun overwhelming affection for her hometown by the film’s end. For just the airport drive alone, Laurie Metcalf was robbed.
21 Jump Street (Starz)
One of the last great big studio comedies before everything morphed into Jason Bateman having a Crazy Night Out, 21 Jump Street is still such a surprising triumph. It was a bawdy enough transition point from the Ferrell and Apatow comedies of the Aughts, without the smug satisfaction of getting away with an edgy TV show reboot. In the early period of Channing Tatum’s imperial run, spanning the 21 Jump Street and its sequel, the Magic Mike franchise, and his villainous Hail, Caesar! performance, this was a madcap showcase of his comic talents.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Netflix)
Updating John Hughes’ playbook for the streaming era, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before became the Netflix comfort food rom-com of choice. Lara Jean’s fledgling love life is blown wide open at the beginning of the film, when a box full of her secret, unsent letters to crushes are mysteriously delivered. Sure, it’s a stomach-churning mistake that also opens up a web of possibilities and a new slate of complications. While in the short term it became a launching pad for Mark Ruffalo look-a-like Noah Centineo, I just hope the film’s true star Lana Condor can string a career out of it. Any movie that rests its climax on the shoulders of a Tears for Fears song is alright by me.