vulture lists

8 Essential Movies About the End of High School

Photo: Vulture

High school is a nearly universal American experience, and so, then, is the end of high school. Regardless of whether it culminates in graduation or not, the conclusion of those four years happens right around one’s 18th birthday, thus providing young people with a one-two sucker punch of impending adulthood, and the whole world telling them that they don’t have to go home but they can’t stay here — school that is.

Finishing compulsory education and figuring out what to do next is so fraught with a mixture of tension, anxiety, optimism, and possibility that this particular time in life has and will continue to provide excellent fodder for movies. There are lots of movies about the end of school, and how scary and exciting it is to be forced to grow up and leave behind the life and people and hometown that provided a bubble of comfort for so long. These are the best movies about those things.

8. Grease (1978)

Despite the incredibly catchy and problematic, toxically masculine musical numbers (“Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightning”), Grease is a delight, and not as fun and frivolous as its status as the go-to slumber-party movie for 40 years would indicate. The story plays out over a school year for Rydell High’s class of 1959, and it’s all about the anxiety of impending adulthood. Before that flying car transports Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) and Danny (John Travolta) into the ’60s and beyond, they and their friends grapple with and bristle against transition. Both of our leads fundamentally change their personalities in an effort to be liked and accepted, which is a frank and brutal implication about what the world will demand. Meanwhile, Frenchy (Didi Conn) and Rizzo (Stockard Channing) learn the value of protecting one’s self and interests for the future that lies ahead in the forms of staying in school (not beauty school) and a pregnancy scare, respectively.

7. Booksmart (2019)

It’s the rare high-school senior who actually looks forward to the end of high school, in the sense that they’re ready to take on the real world, and feel mature and prepared enough to do so. Most go kicking and screaming, ripped from the comfortable womb of pre-college and home life to instead flail about in their young adulthood. Every high-school kid also thinks every other high-school kid besides them have it figured it out (they don’t) and this movie explores that, as Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) ditch being future-minded perfect young people at the very end of high school in order to “catch up” to their classmates and enjoy their consequence-free youth before time runs out. It’s also really nice to see a movie reflect what is most people’s first true love: that incredibly close and intimate friendship with a childhood best friend.

6. Pretty in Pink (1986)

John Hughes got rich making movies about how rich people are assholes, and the class struggle is most alive in Pretty in Pink because it’s the one entry in his Ringwald Trilogy (alongside The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles) that takes place the closest to the end of high school, and the kids are starting to feel those real-world pressures. Andie (Ringwald) hasn’t had a particularly great high-school experience — the mean girls make her life hell because she’s poor, and her best friend Ducky (Jon Cryer) won’t stop hitting on her. But she doesn’t really look forward to leaving this all behind because she’s got a working-class life of scraping by and taking care of her increasingly unreliable father (Harry Dean Stanton) ahead of her. She finds an escape by going all-in on a true-blue high-school romance with wealthy dreamboat Blaine (Andrew McCarthy). Like any good teen movie, it all culminates in a tentatively happy ending at the prom, where kids celebrate being miniature adults — none of the problems, all of the optimism, and lots of crêpe paper and OMD songs.

5. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

The greatest time-travel movie of the ’80s isn’t Back to the Future; it’s this. Ferris (Matthew Broderick) has thousands of dollars’ worth of computer equipment that he uses to stage all sorts of pranks and schemes, and it’s certainly enough to propel him into the future and back. Clearly, at some point prior to the events of the film, Ferris visited 1996 Chicago and discovered himself living a comfortable if ordinary life of working for the man and following the rules, so when he returns to his senior year of 1986, he decided to put all of his efforts into living life for the moment, embracing his youth, and having unbridled, confident fun. He acts like he won’t ever really get caught during his epic, personal senior skip day because he knows he won’t. Plus, like any John Hughes protagonist, he has a preternatural sense that high school is temporary and unimportant — a lesson he happily teaches his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), whose overwhelming anxiety will be familiar to anyone dealing with the pressures of young adulthood.

4. Ghost World (2001)

Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s comics about what happens to the pop-cultural trope of the sarcastic, eye-rolling high-school student after graduation is both deeply moving and deeply unsettling. Like so many other films on this list, Ghost World doesn’t end with a graduation but begins with one — Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) finish school and are subjected to a ridiculous rap song on the subject performed by their idiotic classmates. The women, Enid especially, can only respond with cutting jokes and hostility toward the superficial and congratulatory pomp and circumstance, which simply belies the doom she knows awaits her. Enid feels trapped in her bland suburban dystopia, spending the weeks after graduation self-sabotaging everything in her life — relationships, dead-end jobs — probably because she’s afraid and confused, still grappling with the prospect of having to grow up.

3. Lady Bird (2017)

Has there ever been a movie that so accurately, delicately, and hilariously depicted the relationship between a college-bound teenager and her parents? Christine, sorry, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), pushes back combatively with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) about most everything, but keeps it chill with her father (Tracy Letts) because he clearly decided that it’s foolish to get in the way of anyone with such a strong sense of self and purpose. Perhaps because of her stifling Catholic high school or town that doesn’t have much to offer her (sorry, Sacramento), Lady Bird who, rather than being nervous about what’s next, is the rare graduating senior who can’t wait to leave home, having outgrown her maturity long ago. It’s painfully relatable to watch Lady Bird do what must be done and begin the detachment process with a little light crime and being harsh to her family.

2. Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)

The characters (and audience) of this ensemble comedy about a graduation-night party, just about the only movie from the late ’90s teen-movie boom that doesn’t involve teens getting murdered, learn an important lesson about high school: that the second it’s over, it’s culture and rigorous hierarchy no longer matter. That’s freeing for many — shy and brainy Preston (Ethan Embry) connects with Amanda, the popular, idealized dream girl (Jennifer Love Hewitt) who has outgrown playing into that archetype. And rather than exact revenge on a jock bully, nerdy William gets drunk, sheds his dorky image, and becomes a party god. Meanwhile, that jock bully, Mike (Peter Facinelli) realizes that very night that he peaked in high school, and it’s all downhill from there for him.

1. Superbad (2007)

The 2000s were a heady time for raunchy dude-bro comedies — The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, Old School, and the like. Superbad was marketed as such, except this time the guys getting up to mischief were nerdy teens, portrayed by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. While the booze, sex, McLovin, and slacker cops made Superbad a dorm-room staple, the big feelings in Superbad showed what screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg could do. This is only superficially a movie about two best friends finally getting their party on in the waning days of high school. As Seth (Hill) and Evan (Cera) are based on the screenwriters themselves, it’s actually a poignant, bittersweet movie about deep male friendship. Inseparable Seth and Evan can barely handle (and try not to talk about) how they’ll soon go off to different colleges, knowing their relationship will likely never be the same again.

The 8 Best Movies About the End of High School