Schools are often the settings for feature films. They offer microcosms of the world, providing a playground for exploring larger themes within a limited setting. Within the American film tradition, the “outsider” or “loner” is often used as a window into the world or the school. This outsider student, or social misfit, destabilizes the equilibrium of the social hierarchy and in so doing brings conflict and drama to the script. In Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel without a Cause” (1955), James Dean smashes up against the social order of youth gangs in 1950’s Los Angeles and is left to fend for himself. This tradition has since spawned into entire genres of teen-exploitation films, from horror to coming of age comedies.
Scene from Rebel without a Cause
So more recent work, is interesting for the ways in which it uses high school as a setting while exploring more complex themes. An example of this is the 2005 film “Brick.” In this film, writer/director Rian Johnson mixes film noir aesthetics and the dramas of a Southern California High School. The success of the film lays in the surreal yet consistent world that Johnson creates. In this interview with the director you can hear his thoughts on High School as an inclusive world. Another example of a new take on the high school drama is Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (1999). Coppola combines the misty romanticism of teen drama with mysterious turns inspired by Peter Weir’s Australian film “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975), which chronicles an earlier instance of missing teenage girls.
Scene From Brick
Another take on high school lies in the documentary tradition of Fredrick Wiseman and his observational approach to filming. In his film “High School” (1968), we follow the daily life of a High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Gus Van Sant was seemingly inspired by this documentary approach in his feature film “Elephant” (2003) with it’s prevalence of long takes and a lingering observational style.
Scene from High School
Scene from Elephant