Five Great Movies: Teen Comedies

Five classic teen comedies that represent the way remember high school, and not the way it really was.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


American Reunion is out this weekend, which follows the teenagers from the American Pie franchise into their thirties for a high school reunion. So yes, it’s time to face facts: if you were in high school when American Pie came out, you’re old. Now, now, it’ll be okay. Everything’s working out the way it’s supposed to. Nobody can stay in high school forever, but thanks to the teen comedy boom of the eighties (and the brief recovery in the late 1990s), you can still relive those halcyon years in their archetypical glory whenever you want.

This week on Five Great Movies we’re going to take a look at five classic teen comedies, mostly from the 1980s, that still manage to capture our imagination. They may have nothing whatsoever to do with our actual high school experience, but they certainly represent the way remember it: full of adventures, sex and comically overbearing social awkwardness. We’re not saying these are the five greatest teen comedies ever made, necessarily, just five really great ones.

Did we leave your favorite off the list? That’s what the comments are for…


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (dir. John Hughes, 1986)

When we think of teen comedies, we think of John Hughes. But really, that’s kind of a lie. Most of Hughes’s teen movies were dramas at heart, peppered though they were with humor. So if you leave out 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club, the true teen comedy classic from the Hughes era must be Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This iconic wish-fulfillment fantasy follows the titular character (Matthew Broderick) as he takes one final sick day from high school and has what can only be called the greatest day ever.

Conning his way into four star restaurants, sneaking onto a parade float for impromptu musical numbers and “borrowing” rare sports cars for joyrides are fine on their own, but would be mere frosting without his two comic foils, Dean Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and his jealous sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey), doing everything they can to indulge in their schadenfreude, and his clinically depressed best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) providing an important counterpoint to the silliness. Ferris isn’t just taking the day off, he’s reminding us all that life moves pretty fast… if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you really could miss it.


Summer School (dir. Carl Reiner, 1987)

Since we started writing this week’s Five Great Movies, it’s been announced that the teen comedy classic Summer School is going to be remade. By Adam Sandler. Yikes. He’s not exactly tackling Bringing Up Baby or anything, but he’ll have big shoes to fill. Summer School is a wonderful film.

Mark Harmon stars as Freddy Shoop, a laid back P.E. teacher who gets shanghaied into teaching a summer school English class when the previous teacher wins the lottery. The only problem is, Mr. Shoop has no idea how to teach, and ends up bribing his unruly students with favors just to get them to finish their homework. He lets a comely nymph played by a young Courtney Thorne-Smith stay at his house, gives disastrous driving lessons and indulges the whims of horror fanatics Dave (Gary Riley) and Chainsaw (the iconic Dean Cameron). Naturally, everyone learns a valuable lesson… except in English, as we learn in the unexpected finale. A hilarious film that deserves a better remake than can expect from Happy Madison, but let’s keep our fingers crossed anyway.


Three O’Clock High (dir. Phil Joanou, 1987)

Phil Joanou’s Three O’Clock High is one of the better teen comedies you may not have seen. Casey Siemaszko stars as Jerry Mitchell, the kind of kid who keeps his head down and tries not to be noticed. That’s going to hard today though, since he accidentally challenged Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), the most feared kid in the county, to a fight at three o’clock. Justifiably fearing death, he spends the whole day coming up with new schemes to weasel his way out of it, and all of them backfire spectacularly, like the time he tries to seduce his teacher in front of the class to get sent to detention, and it actually works. Shot with a whirligig visual style courtesy of Coen Bros. cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, Three O’Clock High is one of the most excitingly produced teen comedies ever made. And one of the best. There’s a reason why I did a commentary track for this movie.


Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek, 1989)

Has there ever been a better film about cheating on your homework? Bill and Ted (Alex Winters and a young Keanu Reeves) are the dopiest kids in school. It seems like they no future ahead of them, until we find out they really do: George Carlin steps out of a phone booth time machine to reveal that Bill and Ted and destined to save the future, but they can’t do it unless they get an A+ on their history paper. So they take an excellent adventure through time, kidnapping historical figures like Socrates, Billy the Kid and Genghis Khan for show and tell. Stephen Herek’s film is light-hearted sci-fi comedy at its best, but also damned subversive: it tells kids that it’s important to get through high school, but that it doesn’t really matter what you learn there as long as you don’t quit your garage band.


10 Things I Hate About You (dir. Gil Junger, 1999)

Most of our films this week are from the 1980s, aren’t they? It really was the golden era of teen comedies, but they experienced a brief resurgence in the late 1990s after the unexpected success of She’s All That, a forgettably bland motion picture if ever there was one. The only real highlight of this period was 10 Things I Hate About You, a sweetly snarky update of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in a teen setting. Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) really wants to go out with Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but her cynical father won’t let her date until her icy older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does too. Kat’s pretty hot, in a “Julia Stiles” way, but everyone thinks she’s a total b*tch so Cameron bribes the local rebel Patrick (Heath Ledger) into winning her heart. Naturally, it all goes south in the end, but along the way Patrick proves himself Kat’s match in a film that rare teen comedy with actual romantic chemistry. The ending is problematic (he pretty much buys her love, doesn’t he?), but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise shining example of teen comedies done smart.


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