Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Top 10 Films About Junior High

There have been plenty of teen films about high school, but what about those days of junior high? There aren't too many films that really focus on the years of early adolescence (probably because many of us would rather not recall those years!). These are the best movies about the awkward middle school experience from ages 12 to 15, about puberty and peer pressure and parents and isolation and everything else Judy Blume ever wrote about. If you work in a school, are devoted to youth ministry, or simply want to empathize with junior high students, check out these ten movies:

The 400 Blows: Francois Truffaut's classic film about an isolated and misunderstood young man is both a cinematic classic for the French New Wave, as well as a fantastic meditation on the struggles of early adolescence. The boy in the film, Antoine, is mostly left on his own as his parents neglect him and his teachers only scold him. For a film from 1950s France, the issues adolescents face hasn't changed too much.

Welcome to the Dollhouse: With a name like Dawn Wiener, seventh grade is guaranteed to be painful. Winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 1996, Todd Solondz's take on junior high is brutally awkward. Like a female Napoleon Dynamite, Dawn is insecure, socially inept, and unintentionally hilarious. The film deals with inattentive parents, teen crushes, navigating the social aspects of school, and the lack of confidence we've all felt about ourselves.

Thirteen: The tagline "it's happening so fast" sums up this story about the downward spiral of a thirteen-year-old girl just trying to fit in. Written in-part by a young woman in junior high, the film follows naive Tracy as she is befriended by the popular but troubled Evie. Tracy dabbles in drugs, alcohol, sex, peer pressure, petty theft, eating disorders, violence, and an assortment of other nefarious activities. While the film is an extreme example of what junior high students may experience, it still offers a look into the underground world of early adolescents.

The Class: A year-long snapshot of a racially-diverse Parisian classroom is strikingly authentic and a fascinating look at the postmodern emerging adolescent. This is a meditation on the concept of education, on how adults lead and guide and teach junior high students in our current context. The group is defiant, frustrating, intelligent, often unmotivated, yet filled with surprises and capable of so much. I've never seen a film quite like this; it captures the very essence of working with 12- to 14-year-olds.

Mean Creek: Like a teenage version of Deliverance, this film about bullying centers around a canoe trip gone horribly wrong. After Sam is constantly bullied by the misunderstood and lonely George, he and his friends coax George into joining them on a boat ride with the intention to teach him a lesson. The depth of quality in the child actors in the film is phenomenal. The film touches on how young teens can lash out when misunderstood and the importance of teaching teens about social and moral boundaries. The young people take their prank too far without accountability, allowing their actions to spiral out of control.

The Squid and the Whale: A sad and honest portrait of how divorce affects young people, The Squid and the Whale is Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical tale of two boys navigating through life after their intellectual parents decide to split up. It's incredibly awkward and even painful to watch at times as the brothers end up living with different parents and begin acting out with girls to deal with their frustration and confusion. If you have the opportunity, read Judith Wallerstein's fantastic book "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" before viewing the film.

Half Nelson: Ryan Gosling earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a young inner-city junior high teacher with a drug habit. His teaching methodology doesn't follow any of the normal curriculum, instead talking about dialectics and the philosophy behind the history lessons they are reading about. Torn between a desire to radically change the world and the slow realization that he might not be able to, he turns to cocaine and isolation. His world is change when he's caught doing drugs by a bright yet troubled girl, Drey (Shareeka Epps is incredible as Drey). They form a bond, a friendship/mentorship where they can hold onto hope in their increasingly difficult world. The prevalent themes are teacher/student relationships, the balance between authenticity and authority as a teacher, and the struggle in dealing with personal pain while also trying to guide others.

City of God: Two boys growing up in a violent neighborhood in 1960s Brazil follow two very different life paths. Fast-paced and gripping, this haunting film reveals the stage of early adolescence in the context of poverty. I could have placed the recent Chop Shop or Slumdog Millionaire films here, but City of God has a much stronger emphasis on how choices made in junior high drastically affect the outcome of one's life. One boy succumbs to his surroundings and becomes a violent drug-dealer; the other boy somehow rises above his circumstances to become a photographer, capturing the beauty of his dangerous stomping grounds. It's #17 on IMDB's top movies list, and it deserves its spot.

The Goonies: This film choice might sound silly, but this film highlights the imaginative beauty and value of the marginalized young people from a different social class. Not quite poor, but definitely not wealthy, the kids from the "goondocks" in Astoria, OR are a mishmash of hopeful young people seeking a better life. Sure it's a childlike adventure story, but Mikey's naive idealism and whimsical passion are junior high characteristics through and through.

Let the Right One In: A Swedish vampire film with a meditative pace and a junior high love story, Let the Right One In perfectly captures the quiet desperation and loneliness many junior high students face. Bullied at school and feeling incapable of defending himself, Oskar retreats to his own internal world of pain. Then he meets Eli, a strange girl living next door who has a bizarre wisdom about her. As they slowly build a friendship, Oskar realizes that Eli is also an outcast and lonely. Together they find peace and community where none could be found alone. The film also highlights the disconnect many adults in authority have with junior high students--the parents and teachers don't seem to know or care about Oskar's dilemma, forcing him to deal with his problems on his own. If only the "right one" could be a loving adult who entered the world of Oskar, how different would his troubled life become!

Any other films about middle school or junior high students that I missed? What was your junior high experience like?

1 comment:

  1. What a great post! The movies you picked are also really quality movies, especially my recent favorite Let the Right One In. I think Linda, Linda, Linda and Take Care of My Cat are both jr high movies. The Peanut Butter Solution was another great one. It's not a movie, but Pete and Pete was a pretty required or inescapable staple.