Views / In Focus

Taking those lazy teenage movies to school

Fist Fight does a good job of finding itself and in the process receives more than just pass marks as it joins the list of high school movie graduates.

Charlie Day and Ice Cube play two teachers who brawl in a high school parking lot in Fist Fight.

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Charlie Day and Ice Cube play two teachers who brawl in a high school parking lot in Fist Fight.

Fist Fight features so much bad language it completely outpaces f-word aficionados Tarantino and Scorsese combined. Accompanying the cussing are bad behaviour, violence and loads of oh-no-he-didn’t jokes all set against the backdrop of the end of semester at the rough-’n’-tumble Roosevelt High School.

Trying to hang on until the final bell rings are well-meaning English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) and Ron Strickland (Ice Cube), the world’s toughest history teacher. When Campbell accidentally gets Strickland fired a bad day goes from crappy to cruddy. “I’m going to fight you,” the amped-up Strickland says, looking for some street justice. “After school, meet me in the parking lot.”

As the #teacherfight spreads across social media, a crowd gathers in the parking lot to witness the carnage. After some hand-to-hand combat Campbell and Strickland come to terms with one another, learning important lessons with each punch.

My grade nine homeroom teacher Mrs. Armstrong wouldn’t recognize Roosevelt High as the kind of school she taught in, but it’s familiar territory for Hollywood, which has long used school hallways as a study of teen life. Relationships between students and teachers have fuelled movies like Blackboard Jungle and To Sir with Love, but just as interesting is the culture of the student body.

John Hughes mined the teenage dynamic for all it was worth in a series of classic teen operas like Sixteen Candles, but it’s The Breakfast Club that remains his most insightful look at high school life. The story is simple: five high school archetypes — the jock, the mean girl, the brainiac, the rebel and the outsider — thrown together during a nine-hour Saturday detention become unlikely friends, revealing their innermost secrets. “We’re all pretty bizarre,” says Andrew (Emilio Estevez). “Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”

It’s the emotional intensity of The Breakfast Club that makes it one of the most insightful high school films ever. Thirty-two years after its release it still feels fresh, but for my money one of the best looks at life in the halls comes from Emma Stone’s film Easy A.

The movie begins with the voiceover, “The rumours of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated.” It’s Olive (Stone), a clean-cut high school senior who tells a little white lie about losing her virginity. When the gossip mill gets a hold of the info, her life takes a parallel course to the heroine of the book she is studying in English class — The Scarlet Letter. At first she embraces her newfound notoriety; after all she had been all but invisible at the beginning of the school year. It isn’t until the lies and gossip start to spin out of control that she has to assert her virginity.

All the best high school movies — Election, Heathers, Dazed and Confused and Mean Girls — share that sentiment. The names, schools and places may change but it is the labours of students and teachers, like Fist Fight’s Andy Campbell and Ron Strickland, to find themselves and figure out what it all means that makes them interesting and relatable. As we learned studying Aristotle in philosophy class, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom,” and, in Hollywood’s case, entertainment too.

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