Summer is over, and it’s time for kids to go back to school. The end of the liberty that comes during the warm weather months brings depression for children, and relief for their parents. (Unless, like me, you’re the parent of a Kindergartener, in which case you’re likely pouring yourself a nice stiff drink and asking, “Where did the time go?”) Movies can help make the transition back to the classroom a little easier. There are lots of films dealing with life in the educational system. You’re probably already thinking of “inspiring teacher” movies like Dead Poets Society or “high school angst” pictures such as The Breakfast Club. Yeah, we’re not interested in those. Instead, what follows is a series of more eclectic recommendations tailored to the individual needs of those most impacted by the return to school.
For parents of Kindergarteners: Kindergarten Cop (1990) — Oh sure, this comedy about an undercover police detective posing as a teacher to catch a drug dealer may sound like a poor choice, especially given that the big finale finds an entire school full of children put in peril. But, it sends an important message that the people working in your child’s school, even if they aren’t hulking Austrian undercover cops, are doing everything they can to keep the little ones safe. That should make you feel a bit better as you send your kid off into the care of complete, albeit professional, strangers. Kindergarten Cop is also pretty funny, and features Schwarzenegger’s hilarious attempt to say the word “tumor” in one famous scene.
For kids who are being bullied: My Bodyguard (1980) — Bullying is a very real problem that leaves many children emotionally, and sometimes physically, damaged. Few things are as painful as being tormented by some psycho kid who works out his own issues by making someone else’s life miserable. Bullies suck! In the 1980 comedy My Bodyguard, the appropriately named Chris Makepeace plays a high school student who is routinely harassed by Matt Dillon. For protection, he befriends the hulking class loner (Adam Baldwin) and gets him to act as a personal bodyguard. Together, they bring the bully to his knees. This surprisingly sweet and charming movie takes what could be the premise for a dumb comedy and turns it into something with real soul. It also reminds viewers that most bullies are, in fact, cowards who will back down when you stand up for yourself. My Bodyguard will be empowering for kids who are tired of noogies and wedgies.
For teachers who are feeling burned out: Teachers (1984) — If kids feel bummed out when it’s time to go back to school, so do many of the educators, especially those who have been doing the job for a long time. Let’s be honest: We all had that one teacher who clearly didn’t care anymore. (I once had an American history teacher who let me do a report on David Letterman — and gave me an A for it.) Arthur Hiller’s satire Teachers should be required viewing for them. Nick Nolte plays a high school teacher who is ready to throw in the towel, especially after a former student sues the school for providing an inadequate education. After meeting an idealistic student (Ralph Macchio) and helping a girl in need (Laura Dern), he becomes revitalized, realizing that he has one of the most important jobs in the world. Teachers has some dopey subplots that don’t add up — including one about an escaped mental patient who wanders into a classroom and starts teaching — but the central storyline will reinforce to teachers that the power to shape young minds is a responsibility worth fighting for.
For the student with a crush on a teacher: Bad Teacher (2011) — Guys, if we’d had a teacher who looked like Cameron Diaz, we’d all have done whatever it took to get afterschool detention, am I right? Diaz plays a sexy instructor who cares more about earning money for a boob job than educating anyone in this wickedly daffy comedy. Getting turned on by a hot teacher is practically a rite of high school; Van Halen wrote a whole song about it, after all! In this movie, the teacher is ready and willing for anything naughty, which ought to inspire hope in teen viewers fantasizing about getting some private lessons after homeroom.
For the student who thinks teachers don’t understand them: Half Nelson (2006) — Teenagers often rebel against authority figures, assuming that those in power simply don’t understand the issues facing them. Half Nelson turns that idea on its head. Shareeka Epps plays a teen who discovers that her teacher (Ryan Gosling) has a nasty drug habit. Rather than turning him in, she refuses to judge. The two strike up a friendship, and before long, the girl is teaching him as much as he’s teaching her. Powerfully dramatic and superbly acted, this is a touching story about what it really means to be a role model, as well as a reminder that teachers have problems, too.
For the well-adjusted and altruistic student: Afterschool (2008) — As hard as it is to believe, some kids have essentially problem-free experiences in high school. They’re smart, popular, and happy. I hated kids like that. Teens who are functional and well-adjusted would be well-served to check out Antonio Campos’ Afterschool. Ezra Miller plays Robert, a troubled student who accidentally captures the death of two classmates on video. To help him heal, the guidance counselor suggests he make a video memorial to the deceased. Robert does indeed do this, and it becomes clear that he’s completely disengaged from his own feelings to the degree that he might need professional help. Fascinatingly disturbing, if perhaps a bit too self-consciously artsy at times, Afterschool is a cautionary tale about those kids who fall through the cracks, the ones who hide their anguish beneath a veneer of passiveness. Show this film to your super-awesome teen and encourage them to offer compassion to their peers who may not have it so good.
For parents of college freshmen: Accepted (2006) — Justin Long plays a slacker who gets rejected from every college to which he applies. Afraid to tell his parents this bleak news, he instead invents his own college. Before long, the situation gets out of hand and a bunch of other students (including a pre-fame Jonah Hill) are going to the pretend university, too. Sending your baby off to college is deeply traumatic for most parents. It marks the first real entry into adulthood, the point at which a young person stands or falls based on how they were raised. What Long does in the silly-funny Accepted is dishonest and probably criminal. Here’s the kicker, though: He pulls it off! Parents of freshman may take comfort in the thought that, no matter what stupid stuff their kid gets into, he or she will find a way to work it out. These life lessons are part of that expensive tuition you’re always grousing about!
For older people returning to the educational system: Back to School (1986) — In this classic comedy, Rodney Dangerfield portrays Thornton Melon, a wealthy but uneducated businessman who enrolls in college to discourage his son from dropping out. Melon doesn’t fit into conventional academia, but he certainly finds his own way. Before the year is done, he’s received private tutoring from Kurt Vonnegut, partied with Oingo Boingo, and led the diving team to victory. The point of the hilarious Back to School is clear: You are never too old to learn! If Rodney Dangerfield can do it, so can you!
Hopefully, one of the above-mentioned movies fits your situation and will provide some therapeutic benefit as classrooms reopen. You’ve got your homework, now get busy!