Thanks in part to John Hughes’ prolific output in the 80s, movies about teenagers in high school is essentially its own genre. Here are 30 of the best films about those formative years most of us spend a lifetime trying to forget.
Set at the prestigious New York High School of Performing Arts, Fame chronicles the hopes and dreams of a group of students across all four years of high school as they struggle with auditions on their way to becoming actors, dancers, and/or singers.
Theater geeks, or anyone to ever appear in a school play, can relate to the highs and lows our teenage cast suffers as the competition gets harder the closer they get to graduation. Alan Parker directs, giving the film an unflinching (if, at times, overstated) portrayal of young performers and the toll chasing their ambitions have on themselves and the relationships most important to them.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Sean Penn’s Spicoli became both an iconic character and the poster child for high school slackerdom in this hit high school-set comedy from writer Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling (Clueless). As funny as the movie is, it also features some heavy moments that may surprise the first-time viewer.
Fast Times addresses everything from getting stoned to abortion, and Crowe’s script chronicles the messiness of it all with dialogue and characterizations so realistic, you’d think you either went to school with these people or feel as if you are back roaming the halls of your alma mater. The movie’s cast is stacked, by the way, with future Hollywood stars like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Oscar-winners Forrest Whitaker and Nic Cage.
The Last American Virgin (1982)
With a 75 percent “Fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last American Virgin is one of the best ‘80s teen sex comedies to come about post-Porky’s box office success. The premise has a very American Pie vibe to it, as three high school pals — all with different and likable personalities – set out to lose their virginity as soon as possible.
Their desperation leads to a series of comical follies and complications, especially when one of the kids, Gary (Lawrence Monoson), falls for a transfer student who ends up lusting after Gary’s pal, Rick (Steve Antin). Like Fast Times before it, Last American Virgin also deals with the sensitive subject of abortion and teen pregnancy in a way that gives the comedy a surprising (and welcome) amount of weight and heart.
Risky Business (1983)
Look, who among us hasn’t thought about pursuing business as a high school teenager? We just likely didn’t pull off what teen Joel did: Run a bordello out of his parents’ house. The “only-in-a-movie” plot of this ‘80s hit takes a significant suspension of disbelief to buy into on first blush, but Risky Business quickly wins you over.
The movie has Tom Cruise to thank for his star-making turn as Joel, the golden boy high school senior who falls for a prostitute (Rebecca De Mornay) and becomes, um, her and her friends’ pimp. The iconic “pantless slide” Cruise performs to Bob Seger is just one of those Hollywood scenes branded forever upon pop-culture.
All the Right Moves (1983)
1983 was the year that put a young Tom Cruise on the track for superstardom. While many an ‘80s kid’s first major exposures to the Cruise was by way of Top Gun, the blockbuster that solidified him as a Hollywood leading man, the actor first sparked our attention in films like Risky Business and All the Right Moves – the latter being one of Cruise’s more underrated early efforts. Cruise plays Stefan, his high school football team’s most popular and valued player.
Like Friday Night Lights’ Smash or Jason Street, Stefan fiercely believes that the only way out of his dying small town lies mostly in his gridiron skills. His exit strategy blows up in his face when he blows up at his coach, resulting in Stefan being kicked off the team and falling off the radar of college recruiters. Cruise’s raw acting talent on display here hints to the superstar thespian he would become, as he invests every moment of Stefan’s struggle to get back all the chances he thinks he has lost with a scary-level of believability.
This is not your traditional high school movie unless you grew up hacking government computers on your way to saving the world from “global thermonuclear war.” Matthew Broderick’s charming and super-intelligent teen teams up with friend Ally Sheedy after unknowingly lighting the fuse on the end of the world while looking for a new computer game to play. (Kids… *shakes head).
WarGames spends more time outside the classroom than in it, and watching the movie now, the very-dated computer graphics and fashion will elicit groans, but the tension and emotionally-charged stakes still hold up. Especially that final showdown with the supercomputer.
The Outsiders (1983)
Yup, we also totally forgot Frances Ford Coppola directed this popular adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s book, which was a major fixture on many a student’s reading list. Pony Boy’s story, and that of his fellow Greasers versus rival gang The Socials is as compelling now as it was more than 35 years ago. The then-fresh faces of the movie’s ensemble further reinforce Coppola’s knack for casting is second-to-none.
The movie doesn’t pull any punches or double down on some of its more violent bits, and it doesn’t after. Coppola invests each scene of his adaptation with the exact amount of whatever it needs. When Ponyboy and Johnny’s fight leads to the unfortunate death of a Social, our hearts sink and break as Ponyboy struggles to deal with, as a teen, the consequences of a very adult – and tragic — act.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
John Hughes’ first of many high school-set movies on this list is one of our favorites. This ‘80s teen comedy, written and directed by Hughes, helped define the decade and turned the genre into a cottage industry for Hollywood. Hughes’ muse, Molly Ringwald, stars as Samantha, a 15-year-old full of angst and confusion about to celebrate her sweet sixteen.
Feeling like set dressing in her family life, thanks to her sister’s pending nuptials stealing her birthday spotlight, Samantha struggles with that while getting caught up in pursuit of the older and more popular senior, Jake (Michael Schoeffling). Anthony Michael Hall also costars in a scene-stealing role, in a movie that makes you both long for your high school days and be glad they are far behind.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
While not a traditional high school movie, this classic from Wes Craven depicts the horror of those four years in school in a different (and more bloody) way. You know the story: Teenager Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) struggles to defeat Freddy Krueger in her dreams after he’s attacked and killed her friends in their sleep.
The film’s brilliant conceit – a slasher movie villain stalking his victims in their nightmares – spawned a franchise that is still terrifying us. And the dynamic between Nancy and her high school pals is an engaging and realistic one, making audiences all the more invested when the teens find themselves on the business end of Freddy’s finger knives.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
The Breakfast Club is as funny as it is poignant, hence why it earns its place among the decade’s best films. A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal find themselves stuck in the most life-changing Saturday detention ever in this John Hughes classic that is a staple of the genre.
These students shouldn’t be friends, or in the same room, and despite their differences – rather, because of them – they forge a bond in the library. It’s there that they are finally free of the social pressures both outside the walls and in the halls that prevent them from even thinking about making a connection.
Just One of the Guys (1985)
The ‘80s loved a mistaken identity comedy and this cable staple is one of the genre’s better entries. Terry, reeling from recently losing out on an important writing competition and less than satisfied in her relationship with a jerk college boy, decides to make herself over as a male and enroll in another school because she thinks she would have won if she were a guy.
Looking like Ralph Macchio, Terry finds herself falling for a school nerd and being crushed on by a very forward female student. The jokes lack the sophistication of, say, a Judd Apatow comedy, but they are more elevated than other films set in high school. And for a PG-13 movie, we’re surprised it got away with a brief flash of female nudity.
Teen Wolf (1985)
A thinly-veiled take on the “dangers” of teens going through puberty, Teen Wolf takes the conceit to a very exaggerated place that finds teenager Michael J. Fox struggling with high school as a werewolf. For a comedy, the movie scope-creeps into some potentially horrific territory (Fox’s character menacingly demanding a keg of beer, eyes flaring demon red, as an example).
But because Fox is so damn likable in the role, and charming under all that werewolf makeup, the movie gets away with its darker edges as it explores some heavy themes of identity and figuring yourself out – themes anyone whose ever gone to high school can relate to.
Weird Science (1985)
No one writes teenagers better than John Hughes. And while Weird Science isn’t mentioned in the same breath as some his other classic teen dramas and comedies, it is very notable for how puts the mindset of teens way too preoccupied with sex through a very comical sci-fi lens. Wyatt and Gary, tired of being classified as dorks by the more popular kids in school and not being able to score dates, decide to, um, put bras on their heads and make themselves the perfect woman using their 80s Commodore.
Subverting the Frankenstein’s Monster story, the two boys’ creation takes on the form of Lisa (Kelly Lebrock), a sentient and almost-genie like woman who helps the boys out in ways that ultimately shows them how to help themselves. The funniest bits are centered around the annoying, love-to-hate Chet (an intentionally obnoxious Bill Paxton) and when Chet gets turned into what looks like a turd crossed with a toad.
Better Off Dead (1985)
Eccentric filmmaker Savage Steve Holland gave us two cult-classics: Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer. The former is held up the most in the minds of ‘80s kids who grew up with this movie thanks to copious amounts of HBO viewings. The out-there satire – complete with singing and dancing hamburgers and an Asian-American teen doing a dead-on Howard Cosell impression before a drag race – gives us one of John Cusack’s best ‘80s teen performances.
He plays Lane Meyer, a very odd duck with an even more peculiar family. When his girlfriend leaves him, Lane decides to kill himself – rather, he fails hilariously with each attempt. He soon falls for a new foreign exchange student and challenges Beth’s new beau to a high-stakes ski competition. Holland’s full-throttle script is seemingly executed without any studio fingerprints on it; too bad more high school comedies can’t be made today with similar freedom.
Stand By Me (1986)
Director Rob Reiner’s exceptional adaptation of Stephen King’s story remains one of the author’s best big-screen adaptations – right up there with The Shawshank Redemption. Stand By Me finds a young and disparate group of teens on the search for a local kid’s dead body, effortlessly goes back and forth between being comedic and dramatic.
The closer the kids get to finding what they’re looking for, the more insights they gain about who they are and how the skeletons in their respective family’s closets have shaped them. The movie excels at exploring how the things we don’t like to talk about end up speaking volumes, as we hit that age where we can either be defined by them or let them remind us that we can be more than what we’ve let ourselves think we are.
Pretty In Pink (1986)
John Hughes can’t stop, won’t stop, dramatizing ‘80s teens and their struggles on the big screen. Pretty In Pink, his follow-up to Breakfast Club, is another must-see entry in the genre. Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy, and Jon Cryer star in this ‘80s cult classic, a rom-com that turns the social cliques of high school life inside out.
This is a story about how even teenage love isn’t immune to the messiness that comes with more adult relationships. Pretty In Pink is a core member of those movies filed under “Brat Pack,” thanks to its cast of rising stars. Also, the movie’s soundtrack is *chef’s kiss.
Ever wonder where the slow-clap building to full applause came from? Patient zero is Lucas, another cable and VHS staple for ‘80s teens growing up. Corey Haim plays the titular character, an exceptionally bright student and social pariah whose nerdy everything frequently finds him in the crosshairs of bullies.
He lives mostly on the periphery of his high school’s popularity circles, yearning for his life to overlap more with them. When he befriends new girl Maggie (The Goonies’ Kerri Green) and develops a crush on her, he decides to join the football team to impress her. The movie mixes comedy and drama with heartwarming effect, building up to those iconic final moments that will leave you slow-clapping, too.
Gene Hackman’s acting CV is blessed with several exceptional and unforgettable performances. Hoosiers is one of them. No one plays gruff and likable better than Hackman, which is key for his role as a failed college basketball coach given a shot at redemption – and the championship – when he coaches a struggling high school team in 1950s Indiana.
Considered to be one of the best sports dramas of all time, Hoosiers captures perfectly the longing for days gone by with its tale of using sports as a metaphor for how one’s future potential isn’t defined by a past that failed to meet it.
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Time travel and teen angst, from the director of The Godfather? Sign. Us. Up. Kathleen Turner plays Peggy Sue, a woman on the down slope of her marriage to her cheating husband (Nicolas Cage) and looking the barrel of her 25-year high school reunion. Unhappy with the choices she made, and overwhelmed with the all-too-real consequences of them, she faints at the reunion and wakes up back in 1960.
There, she gets a second chance to go through high school all over again and right some wrongs she never thought possible. Coppola’s subtle and delicate handling of the tonally-tricky material keeps it from veering into potential camp or melodrama, and Turner’s underrated performance is incredible.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Seemingly played on a loop on cable, teens everywhere identified all too easily with Matthew Broderick’s Ferris and his breaking-the-fourth-wall ways. The movie centers on Ferris’ elaborate plan to skip school and enlist his beautiful girlfriend (Mia Sara) and his sheltered best friend with daddy issues, Cameron (Alan Ruck), to join him. But Ferris’ nemesis, Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), is on to him.
As fun and envious as Ferris’ day trip through Chicago is to the movie’s target demo, the kid’s kind of a selfish jerk – “borrowing” Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari and putting his best friend through quite the panic attack in the process. In the end, Ferris gets home in time before his parents and Rooney find out what he’s really up to – and it is a testament to John Hughes’ script that we are rooting for such a problematic character to not get caught.
Adventures in Babysitting (1987)
We get nostalgic AF whenever we’re lucky enough to catch the opening scene of this movie on cable, when babysitter Chris (Elizabeth Shue) bedroom dances to “Then He Kissed Me.” That’s arguably the last happy moment Chris has before plans with her older boyfriend fall through and she is forced to take on a last-minute babysitting gig.
Chris and her brood end up lost in Chicago, where they lose their car and end up befriending a mechanic that looks like Marvel’s Thor, played by none other than a young Vincent D’onofrio. As luck would have it, Adventures premiered only two weeks after D’onofrio’s career-making turn as Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. Little touches like that in Chris Columbus’ feature directorial debut endeared this comedy to a very passionate fanbase.
Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)
The ’80s movie that made Patrick Dempsey a name and teen idol, Can’t Buy Me Love casts the future Dr. McDreamy as a nerdy kid struggling to find love and fit in. For $1000, he hires cheerleader Cindy (played by the late Amanda Petersen) to pretend to be his girlfriend and show him the ways of being cool – well, as cool as ‘80s fashion and hair products will allow.
It’s not the funniest or best script every made, but the jokes that work outnumber those that don’t. And the likable characters help fill in any narrative cracks as we actively root for these two teens to get together. When they do, it results in one of the most memorable final shots of any high school movie.
Three O’Clock High (1987)
Three O’Clock High is one of those high school comedies that leaves you scratching your head as to why it didn’t garner a bigger audience upon initial release. A satire with a drama’s pace, High centers on a conflict between Jerry, the meek kid in school (Casey Siemaszko), and Buddy, the delinquent bully whose wrath Jerry incurs.
The two find themselves barreling toward the clichéd after-school fight in the parking lot at 3 pm, with every scene building to that inevitable confrontation crackling with sharp wit and surprisingly high tension. It’s crazy how invested you will get in the demur hero’s “David vs. Goliath” predicament, especially when he surprises everyone at school with his inventive resolve.
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
Even in John Hughes’ best comedies, audiences could tell he was angling to tell more dramas. His very underrated Some Kind of Wonderful allows him to embrace that inclination, with its slow-burn story about an outcast art student (Eric Stoltz) trying to court the popular girl that’s out of his league (Lea Thompson).
He enlists the help of his best friend, the tomboy Watts (played by a never-better Mary Stuart Masterson), and in the process finds himself caught in an unintentional love triangle when he discovers that his best friend loves him in a way she thinks he will never love her. The back half of this movie is a gut punch for any teen forced to endure unrequited love in high school. Thankfully, the movie has a happier ending than most of our stories did.
Despite a sharp wit that was way ahead of its time, Heathers managed to carve a space for itself in the zeitgeist with its hilarious and biting commentary on teen angst injected with a strong dose of foul play and murder.
A black-on-black satire about high school and the messiness of cliques and popularity, Heathers is arguably the best of the ‘80s movies with a cult following. Infinitely quotable and endlessly re-watchable, Heathers is that rare movie that rewards you with something new to appreciate with every viewing.
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Edward James Olmos delivers career-best work here, telling the story of real-life math teacher Mr. Jaime Escalante and his heartstring-tugging attempt to steer his students away from dropping out by way of teaching them calculus. Escalante’s work is cut out for him; his school’s halls are full of teenage hardheads that hassle him. He struggles to find respect in his classroom, which incurs pressure from his bosses.
The educator’s biggest pain is student Angel (Lou Diamond Phillips). And the scenes that chart their arc from adversaries to allies are the beating heart of this film. While the stakes fall short of epic, they are nevertheless felt deeply as the students master calculus – only to have to prove themselves again when their impressive test scores are questioned.
Say Anything … (1989)
Writer Cameron Crowe made his feature directorial debut with this high school romance that helped turn Lloyd Dobler’s boom box-holding profession of love into one of Hollywood’s most iconic images ever. The object of Lloyd’s affection is the seemingly “out of his league” Diane Court (Ione Skye). Diane is one of the smartest kids in school whose teenage life and college plans have been stage-managed by her loving “helicopter dad.”
Lloyd — an awkward, trenchcoat-wearing teen with professional kickboxing aspirations — struggles with Diane through all the obstacles that come with a teenage romance in a way that is both relatable and compelling, thanks to Crowe’s deft handling of the material.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
“Oh, Captain, my Captain!” The late Robin Williams gives a career Top Five performance as John Keating, an English teacher hired by a prestigious private school to help inspire his students to be the best versions of themselves. (Though, realistically, 90 percent of these guys will grow up to be the type of men who quote Walt Whitman in their Tinder bio right beneath a photo of them at the gym doing reps, their bicep ever so faintly cheating out so you can read their “carpe dime 4 life” tat.)
Peter Weir’s assured direction helps anchor Williams’ performance from going “full Williams,” all the more to service the story’s more dramatic moments centered on a type of high school experience outside the norm for most viewers. We can’t watch this ‘80s classic without wanting to quote that line and stand on our school desks.
Lean on Me (1989)
John G. Avildsen of Rocky fame directs Morgan Freeman in this fact-based film about a driven ex-teacher’s efforts to turnaround New Jersey’s East Side High, the lowest-ranked school in the state. Freeman plays the stern, tough-love dispensing Principal Joe Clark, who cuts through the school’s gangs and narcotics issues on his way to reaching the minds of the school’s students.
Freeman turns in an impressive, star-making performance here. Lean on Me set the template for future movies about inner-city school students trying to turn themselves around. And while other, similar versions of this story would veer into cliché, Lean never does thanks to its sincere and gripping take on the subject matter.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
30 years later, not only is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure one of the best time traveling movies ever made, it’s also one of the most entertaining high school comedies. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are perfect in the titular roles of two stereotypical California teens aspiring to be rock musicians and trying hard to pass history.
To help with the latter, they board a phone booth and travel through time to find some visual aids: Real-life historical figures. The screenplay’s acerbic wit and the film’s very quotable lines (“Be excellent to each other!”) are key elements behind why this film’s fans are legion more than three decades after its release.