High school has inspired a seemingly endless amount of movies and TV shows, which in turn have impacted pop culture in a large way, exemplified by everything from the queen of Mean Girls Regina George to single-handedly bringing glitter looks into the mainstream with Euphoria. These works give the audience a look into an imagined high school experience. However, watching these shows sometimes makes me uneasy. It seems that often, Hollywood just can’t get it right. Clunky dialogue from out of touch writers and miscasting can cause a promising story to completely fall off the rails.
If you’re looking for a movie or tv show that gets it right, NBN entertainment writers have put this list together, making a case for why each movie or TV show is the best portrayal of high school they’ve seen on screen.
“Who drew the dicks?”
That question is the driving plot behind season one of Netflix’s American Vandal, which ran for two seasons from 2017 to 2018. The show satirized true crime docuseries such as Making a Murderer and Serial by shifting the conventions and tone of the genre to a decidedly lower-stakes setting: American high school. American Vandal’s conflicts are puerile – the first season investigates who spray painted a series of dicks onto faculty cars, while season two revolves around a series of poop-based pranks – but manages to take itself seriously enough to truly sell the perceived gravity of the situation. The two main characters, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, carry themselves with such earnestness that the viewer feels like they could run into these two guys in the hall before eighth period Trig. The plot points are all based around youth culture, but never in a way that panders or feels disconnected. Modern youth culture staples such as Twitch, Juul pods and the college application process are used with tact and relatability.
American Vandal’s greatest strength, however, are the performances from the entire cast. Most of the cast consists of relatively unknown actors, with the exception of a few former Disney Channel stars. The writing and script direction creates such an air of authenticity that many people I’ve watched the show with have asked me if the show is a real-life documentary. A standout scene to me would be the introduction of Ming Zhang, in which the investigation rules out Ming’s potential guilt despite his lack of alibi simply because “he doesn’t have it in him.” The character testimony highlights his wholesome behavior such as not participating in a food fight and returning money to the Lost and Found. The interviews describe Ming as an unhateable, pure soul. The effectiveness of this scene is derived from how relatable this character is – every high school had a Ming.
American Vandal’s authenticity is derived from its environment – these are just regular teenagers at high school hanging out and trying to figure out who spray painted dicks on the teachers’ cars in the parking lot. Furthermore, the show manages to send a genuinely informed message about self-worth and growing up during the Internet era. I don’t think I’ve seen a work of media as informed of the high school experience as American Vandal.
American Vandal manages to create an engaging narrative by taking high school as seriously as high schoolers do and in doing so, creates what I believe to be the best portrayal of high school in TV.
Released in 2019, Sex Education’s two seasons capture aspects of the high school experience that are universal — the awkwardness, the inability to communicate your feelings and the struggle to find your place in the world. With Sex Education as its title, it’s not surprising that the show centers around sex and relationships, and the dysfunction that follows when teenagers first encounter them. Some might argue that this focus takes away from the accuracy of the portrayal, but the emotions the characters experience are still relatable, and to me, that is the most important piece to get right when depicting high schoolers. Still, I should point out that Sex Education takes place in the U.K., and as I am not British, I can’t speak to how accurate the dialogue is to how British teens talk.
The show begins when Otis (Asa Butterfield), an awkward high-schooler whose mother is a successful sex therapist, starts a business offering sex advice at his high school for profit. His business partner in the endeavor is Maeve (Emma Mackey), the school’s bad-girl who Otis is crushing on.
With a premise so far out, it’s shocking that the show retains any relatability, but its dynamic characters make the story work. Otis’ best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is openly gay and is struggling with self-expression, but also how to not be terrible at the French horn. Maeve is not the typical rebel — she’s hiding a secret intellect and is supporting herself financially. Jackson, the popular jock, is crumbling under the pressures placed on him and thinks about having a life outside of sports. Adam, the headmaster’s son and school bully, struggles with his sexuality and his relationship with his father. Again and again, the show allows its characters to be more than one thing, and their struggles transcend the molds of the typical high school tropes.
There’s also an honesty with which Sex Education confronts the tougher things about being a teenager. The characters genuinely mess up, and often. They attend their first parties and drunkenly embarrass themselves, they misread situations in the worst ways, and they fail to show up for the people who really matter. It’s sometimes hard to watch due to second-hand embarrassment, but that’s probably because those moments are so real, and the feelings are relatable even when the situations are not.
Booksmart is a film all about the uncertainty of high school graduation, a time when everything you thought was solid begins shifting underfoot. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as Molly and Amy, best friends and the pretentious graduates most of us can recall from our own lives.
Believing their admission into Ivies to be the ultimate marker of success, the two are horrified to learn their classmates – the ones skipping class, going to parties, having sex – also got into prestigious colleges and landed big job offers. Their world is turned upside down. Confused and devastated about all they missed out on, the obvious solution is to pack four years of missed opportunity into one wild night of adventure. Feldstein and Dever are phenomenal leads delivering a believable, relatable desperation to be cool, and the jokes come nonstop. There’s a yacht party, a memorable Lyft ride, a murder-mystery dinner, an uncooperative pizza delivery man and so much more.
What sets this movie apart is the emotion at the heart of each character. The relationship between Molly and Amy is taken very seriously. Every idiot high schooler comprising the supporting cast is terrible in their own right, but also trying pretty hard to fit in, to seem cool, to be liked. The rich kid just wants real friends, the girl labeled a slut didn’t deserve it — each character gets an opportunity to open up and show the audience more of who they are. The treatment of relationships and sexual orientation is also spot-on; teenage romantic efforts are hard to watch but impossible to look away from.
As reputations change overnight and new depths are revealed, graduation day comes and everyone is celebrated as they deserve. We get the payoff of the heartfelt speech and on-stage kiss and the highs and lows of high school in a funny, fresh, modern way. Ultimately, it’s a timeless story, written perfectly for today.
Freaks and Geeks
On any list of television shows cancelled too soon that makes sense, Freaks and Geeks is near the top. Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s masterful teen dramedy is one of the best shows in the past two decades.
Set in the early 1980s, Freaks and Geeks takes place in the Detroit suburbs. Lindsay Weir, played by a young Linda Cardellini, falls in with the group of stoners at her school – made up by an all-star cast of Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, James Franco and Busy Phillips – while her younger brother Sam (John Francis Daley) navigates starting freshman year with his friends that would rather mess around with toy science kits and read comics than play sports in gym class. It’s a premise that seems simple enough, but the intricate weaving of class consciousness, generational divides and the horrors of coming of age make these eighteen episodes one of the best portrayals of high schoolers ever made.
The pleasure of watching Freaks and Geeks is the empathy with which the characters are treated. It would’ve been easy for Kim Kelly (Phillips) to have been written as Lindsay’s romantic rival or the mean girl who terrorizes her – after all, the trope is a staple of the genre. Instead, she’s a shockingly nuanced, developed character whose agency and feelings aren’t minimized for the sake of the plot. Sam and his friends have to deal with the simultaneous pull of wanting to stay a child, trick-or-treating for another year and trying to be much more mature than they actually are. Even the Weir parents are shown considerately, grappling with the fact that their children don’t need them as much.
There’s something so insightful about Freaks and Geeks that lasted long past the show’s year-long run. It isn’t trying to make cheating on a test a Very Special Episode that Teaches Valuable Lessons; it has too much respect for its audience to talk down to them like that. Instead, the writers recognized that teenagers are, in fact, real people. In a television landscape where many high school dramas feel more like crime procedurals in a convenient setting, it’s a relief to have Freaks and Geeks to go back to, time and time again.
Victorious is proof that high schools come in all shapes and sizes. The show follows 16-year-old Tori Vega (played by Victoria Justice) as she enrolls in a new school devoted to the performing arts. At first glance, it would be difficult in a specific setting like this to find a universal experience, but Victorious actually reminded me a lot of my high school.
What Hollywood Arts did have was genuine high school characters. Victorious threw out the tired girl next-door-protagonist versus mean girl trope, and instead gave us a delightful cast of weirdos and oddballs that I think are found at every high school. Think back. Did you know someone who was impressively musically talented? They could play almost every instrument they picked up, and fundamentally understood a melody just by hearing it? In the show, that was Andre, but I can think of a real-life high school friend just like that as well. There’s also Sinjin, your local oddball. Lone wolf character, renowned for their weirdness – you probably have a few stories about your own high school’s Sinjin. Finally there is Beck Oliver. Beck is the person from your high school who was so good looking, so cool, it was sometimes hard to believe they existed in real life. The best thing about these people and a major element Hollywood often gets wrong is that beautiful people don’t automatically mean spiteful, stuck-up bullies. A blip of kindness in an otherwise uncaring place, Beck welcomed Tori into the friend circle, even though he didn’t have to and initially faced some opposition from his girlfriend, Jade. Unfortunately, I did not have a quirky barefoot drama teacher like Sikowitz (though my 10th grade instructor could definitely be defined as eccentric – what high school drama teacher isn’t?).
Through all these characters, Victorious shows what it really means to be in high school, a place where you’re thrown together with weird and wonderful people you end up bonding with after years of your teenage life spent together.