As you flip through the calendar pages and the scent of chalk and freshly sharpened pencils fills the air, the phrase “back to school” evokes anticipation and nostalgia.
For students, it signifies the end of summer vacation and the onset of new chapters brimming with potential friendships and as-yet-undiscovered challenges, all faced with the ambivalent emotion of uncertainty.
On the other hand, for adults, pondering the school concept stirs a whirlwind of emotions that transport them back to their youth. In those days, the bell ringing signaled the start of classes and the looming end of freedom they would never experience again amid the myriad commitments of work and family life.
The school serves as a melting pot of emotions, blending the exhilaration of youth with feelings of depression, isolation, love, and friendship. This rich emotional tapestry parallels the diverse film genres, including comedy, action, romance, thriller, and even horror.
In classrooms, we sit surrounded by our peers—some friends, some mere acquaintances, and others mysteries yet to be unraveled. Similarly, cinemas offer a communal experience, creating a shared atmosphere in which each individual uniquely reacts to the unfolding story on the screen.
Let’s remember that films, much like school, can offer education in unexpected ways. Beneath the surface of pure entertainment may lurk valuable life lessons, insights, and morals that endure long after the credits have rolled.
As we embark on this cinematic journey focused on “back to school,” let’s discard any sense of superiority or the notion that we have nothing left to learn. After all, the only true certainty in life is its inherent unpredictability.
Table of contents
National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
“Animal House” isn’t just one of the quintessential school-based movies; it’s a comedy that has earned a permanent spot in the annals of film history. Set in the fictional Faber College, the story orbits around the notorious Delta Tau Chi fraternity—a raucous group of misfits who live for the joy of endless parties.
Amidst a sea of alcohol, drugs, and loud parties teeming with equally uninhibited young women, the Deltas embody a lifestyle of carefree abandon. They are the polar opposite of the Omega Theta Pi fraternity—home to the college’s affluent and privileged, who live by a nearly militaristic code of conduct.
In the midst of this is Dean Vernon Wormer, a man obsessed with expelling the Delta fraternity. He keeps a close eye on them, eagerly waiting for them to make a mistake that would justify their expulsion. The Deltas’ unapologetic zest for life and resistance to rules makes them a thorn in his side.
Even in defeat, the Deltas find a way to have the last laugh, led by the rowdy and irresistible Bluto. John Belushi delivers the performance of a lifetime, becoming the symbolic face of youthful rebellion. Directed by the inimitable John Landis and co-written by Harold Ramis, “Animal House” has carved its place as a ’70s cult classic.
While it’s impossible to mention every standout character, a nod must be given to Donald Sutherland‘s phenomenal turn as a hippie professor and a young Kevin Bacon, making one of his first cinematic appearances in a hilarious role.
When you’re yearning for the more carefree and joyous days of school life, it’s hard to think of another film that captures the essence as perfectly as “Animal House”—as relevant today as it was then.
The Principal (1987)
We change genres but remain in the company of the Belushi family, this time with the younger brother, James Belushi. Perhaps less famous but no less funny than his late brother John, James plays Rick Latimer in this action film with a school setting.
Latimer is a hot-tempered teacher who faces punitive measures after assaulting a fellow teacher who starts dating his ex-girlfriend. To make him pay, his superiors transfer and promote him to the principal of Brandel High, a school in an impoverished ghetto where criminals rule, and students live in fear and violence.
Things reach a breaking point when, following the brutal assault of a substitute teacher, Latimer decides it is time to fight back, and the school turns into a lawless battleground where Latimer confronts bullies and criminals along with the equally aggressive janitor Jake Phillips.
Although one should not expect life lessons from “The Principal”—a simple action film with which we go back to the school days of the 1980s—the film hits the mark directed by Christopher Cain, known for his inconsistent filmography from amazing hits like Young Guns and unwatchable sequels like Karate Kid 4.
Fortunately, in this case, he finds a balanced blend of entertainment, albeit casting aside any moral overtones for a story pumped up with testosterone and badass antics.
In addition to James Belushi, perfect for the role, we add the presence of the legendary Louis Gossett Jr., another prominent actor in that era’s tough, macho cinema.
Okay, so maybe it’s not the most kid-friendly movie, still, there’s something undeniably funny about seeing bullies being bullied for once by someone crazier and crueler than they are.
Finding Forrester (2000)
With the next movie, we get into an entirely different educational setting now: the ancient and prestigious Mailor-Callow institution.
In stark contrast to the upscale atmosphere of the school, our protagonist, Jamal Wallace, is anything but wealthy and privileged, having been born and raised in a poor neighborhood of New York City, where he still lives with his mother and brother.
However, Jamal’s extraordinary talent for writing does not go unnoticed, so much so that he earns the desired scholarship to this elite school.
At the same time, by a lucky chance, a prank gone wrong brings him to the apartment of a lonely older man known in the community for his hermit-like behavior. A mentoring relationship blossoms between the two: the older man gives Jamal tips to hone his writing skills while he visits him for company.
As he later discovers, his new friend is the famous William Forrester, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who disappeared from public life after publishing his first and only groundbreaking book.
Both agree to keep each other’s secrets, but life at Mailor-Callow is not easy for Jamal, and his socioeconomic background becomes a target, even by a teacher bent on sabotaging his writing.
Director Gus Van Sant revisits the central themes of Good Will Hunting but brings them back into the writing and private school world.
Unfortunately, the movie reminds us that for too many people, money and social standing still trump the true virtues of life, although if nothing else, at least in fiction, we can still hope for happy endings.
School of Rock (2003)
We (gladly) plunge back into the kingdom of comedy with the everlasting Jack Black.
In this case, Jack takes on the poor and ragged role of Dewey Finn, a wild and cash-strapped musician who, in a desperate attempt to pay the bills, pretends to be a substitute teacher and gets a temporary job at a prestigious elementary school.
Of course, Finn has no idea about conventional teaching, so he does what he does best: he introduces children to loud, fantastic rock music. Before long, Finn earns the trust and admiration of the other teachers, the principal, and, of course, his students, even going so far as to form a small rock band.
However, the truth about his identity and intentions will come out sooner or later, but only after these budding talents get a chance to perform in a major music competition.
In the eclectic director Richard Linklater‘s colorful spectrum of works, “School of Rock” might appear to be his most mundane work, but fortunately, being simple does not mean being boring at all.
On the contrary, this is one of the most engaging and entertaining of his varied and original filmography, or at least the one that has been most popular with the general public.
Of course, the film’s success is not only due to its direction but flows from the veins of the boundless energy of the legendary Jack Black, an unstoppable force of nature who is just the kind of teacher we all wish we had.
With its blend of charm, innocence, fun, and a soundtrack that goes beyond the only rock from the title, this simple little gem remains a cinematic delight for audiences of all ages and the perfect movie to put on when you have no idea what to watch.
Moving quite away from previous school movies, we conclude with “Confessions,” a Japanese psychological thriller centered on a middle school teacher, Yuko Moriguchi.
Shortly before her forced retirement, Moriguchi seeks confirmation about the students she believes are responsible for her daughter’s death: the young Shūya and Naoki, who are highly different from each other yet somehow complicit.
A relentless and harrowing interrogation ensues that, ironically, is also a confession conducted in front of the entire class.
This ruthless expose reveals the secrets hidden in the families and personal lives of all these young students, who, in the classroom, are just faces sitting next to each other every day. However, on that day, they have no choice but to really get to know each other.
So, peering inside the walls and the illusion of security provided by their homes, we discover that their private lives are often hellish dead ends masquerading as paradise.
Director Tetsuya Nakashima defies all narrative norms, wrapping the story in an intense, dark atmosphere for a tragedy that burns slowly through quick cuts and many different undercurrents, framed by minimalist cinematography but so elegant and sophisticated that it clashes with the vulgar darkness of the characters.
All the young actors offer convincing and out-of-stereotype performances, but undoubtedly standing out above them all is the protagonist, Takako Matsu, with a disturbing and haunting role that simultaneously is perfectly calm and lucid in its determination to uncover the truth.