It goes without saying, not all high school movies were created equally. What makes some films based on those four formative years popular, iconic, or even award-winning doesn’t necessarily make them relatable. Sometimes, the less realistic a scenario or setting, the more beloved the flick. But we’re not talking about those movies. Not yet, anyway.
When it comes to nostalgia, certain movies magically transport audiences back to their teen years in timeless ways. No matter the graduating class or high school movie era, the movies on this list capture eternally familiar feelings that come with being on the cusp of adulthood, and mostly through realistic lenses.
Here are the most nostalgic movies to watch when you’re feeling a feel-good high school flick. Or as I like to call them, the Bittersweet Sixteen.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is often dubbed the true classic of American high school movies. When it debuted, the sobering comedy was the first of its kind, depicting the high school experience without a rosy glow, but with all the teenage angst and then some. Officially, the Library of Congress has preserved the ’80s flick for its “cultural and artistic significance.”
Director Cameron Crowe actually went undercover at a California high school, wrote a book about his experience, and based the screenplay on it. Fast Times at Ridgemont High masterfully captures the state of flux we’re all in during our teen years and all the uncertainties that come with growing up. And it’s endlessly good for a wholehearted (sometimes uncomfortable) laugh.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Based on the coming-of-age novel by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is revered for its solid script, stellar cast, and raw honesty. The coming-of-age dramedy explores the highs, lows, and awkwardness of being a teenager through the lens of, well, a wallflower.
Some critics have given the hit flick flack, agreeing that it’s definitely sincere and spot-on, but claiming some of the themes might be overdone. However, those who’ve watched it closely beg to differ. Without giving too much away, the movie ventures into unexplored — and somewhat unexpected — territory onscreen, becoming even more honest.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Obviously, there cannot be a nostalgic high school movie roundup without The Breakfast Club. It’s one of those teenage movies that single-handedly shaped a generation. As noted by HuffPost, the most important message in the ’80s classic is “when you grow up, your heart dies.”
Of course, this isn’t really true. Still, it’s a very real teen sentiment. While full of teenage stereotypes, the hit movie put a profound fear in the hearts of its audience and spawned generations of young adults who made sure they stayed in touch with themselves and never lost their spirit.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
This nostalgic teen rom-com still resonates for all the right reasons. Directed by Gil Junger, 10 Things I Hate About You is very loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew, but it’s all the classic ’90s tropes that made it unforgettable and forever quotable.
The over-the-top elements and expectations are there; the wild party, the insanely decked-out prom, and Heath Ledger stealing school equipment to sing Julia Stiles a love song while she’s at soccer practice. But there’s so much more to it than its primary love story. At the heart of it, 10 Things I Hate About You is about becoming comfortable with our individuality and truest sense of self.
As far as high school movies go, Juno is not only nostalgic, it was groundbreaking in its own right. If you thought a movie about the trials and tribulations of teenage pregnancy couldn’t be heartwarming and hilarious, you thought wrong. Juno delves into the enduring realities of being a teenager we all must face, no matter what life throws our way. Or as Juno puts it “Oh, just dealing with things way beyond my maturity level.”
When it debuted, the Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus read, “One of the brightest, funniest comedies of the year, Juno‘s smart script and direction are matched by assured performances in a coming of age story with a 21st-century twist.”
Dazed and Confused (1993)
One of the things that makes Dazed and Confused so nostalgic is that it was made with nostalgia in mind. The ’90s period piece about high schoolers in the ’70s on their last day of school is an enduring classic. It forever romanticizes a simpler time in life with fewer responsibilities and more adventures. And it’s one of the most quotable high school movies ever.
Dazed and Confused is a smooth ride that awakens the desire to remember the good times of our high school experience. Or should I say, it’s alright, alright, alright.
Remember your Senior year of High School? Well, it might not have looked exactly like Superbad, but the generational film forever strikes an honest chord with its audience. In fact, a lot of the popular catchphrases and lingo found in the film originated there and soon became normal vernacular. And there’s a reason for that.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg set out to not only make Superbad really good, but they wanted it to feel real for them and those with similar experiences. Rogen once explained, “There were no movies that were really capturing what we were experiencing,” adding, “So we wrote one, basically.”
Mean Girls (2004)
When it comes to nostalgia, Mean Girls is officially a modern classic. If you’ve ever been the new girl in town, dealt with bullying, cliques, or been distracted in class by someone you had a crush on, this one probably speaks to you on some level, but in the funniest of ways.
The Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus reads, “Elevated by a brilliant screenplay and outstanding ensemble cast, Mean Girls finds fresh, female-fronted humor in the high school experience.” And we totally agree with that so fetch take.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
In terms of high school films that get it right, Can’t Hardly Wait is sorely underrated. The plot interweaves the experiences and encounters of various high school seniors on the night of their graduation party. On the surface, it’s funny. But don’t judge this movie by its cover.
On a deeper level, Can’t Hardly Wait explores how the characters’ inner worlds differ from their peers’ perceptions, unpacks what they wish they’d done differently, and endlessly grapples with trying to figure out who they really are. But it manages to hit even the most unsettling marks in a lighthearted way. Not to mention, the not-too-far-fetched love story within is pretty darn cute.
Easy A (2010)
Easy A is loaded with nostalgia. For starters, its lead character (played by Emma Stone) is obsessed with ’80s high school movies. In turn, the soundtrack is jam-packed with hit tracks from all the biggest movies of yesteryear. And there are obvious nods to flicks like The Breakfast Club and Can’t Buy Me Love throughout. But the plot touches on some true-to-teen-life themes worth noting.
The Scarlett Letter is a heavy influence in the film and its themes, but with a modern twist. Easy A deals with issues surrounding identity, reputation, and “sex-shaming” in honest, sincere, and sometimes, silly ways. When it debuted, critics and audiences alike agreed that many of its criticisms of the high school experience and system were completely valid.
At first glance, part of what makes Clueless so nostalgic has very little to do with how relatable it is. The pop culture mainstay’s whole premise is based on how its lead (played by Alicia Silverstone) thinks her teenage life is normal when it is anything but. Cher is the most beautiful, popular, and wealthy sixteen-year-old in all of Beverly Hills, California. And in her mind, she’s living the teenage dream.
The reality is, she’s also painfully naive. Clueless magnifies how perception is often teenage reality. Then, we follow our lead along her journey to self-discovery. On Cher’s quest to become a more well-rounded person, the movie’s layers unfold. Audiences arrive at something that feels true to experiences like first loves, first fights, and the first time you realize that maybe you don’t have it all figured out just yet.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
So maybe it’s not the most realistic of plots when you think about it, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off perfectly captures a high school state of mind. And that’s really what high school nostalgia is all about. Luckily for this one, no one knew their way around relatable teen characters better than John Hughes at the time.
As noted by Culture Trip, the ’80s film has become iconic “for its honest and sympathetic depiction of teenagers and their struggles.” Not to mention, what speaks more to the teenage soul than the desire to play hooky at least one really good time?
Lady Bird (2017)
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is an intimate depiction of the high school experience and if you haven’t watched it yet, we highly recommend you do. Not remotely cheesy and never hollow, the highly buzzed-about 2017 movie has the type of naturalness that most movies of its kind never come close to.
And even if the storyline itself doesn’t take you to another place and time, the nostalgia-heavy cinematography definitely will.
Never Been Kissed (1999)
Never Been Kissed is a feel-good high school do-over movie that’s surprisingly accurate. Yes, the lead is a 23-year-old reporter posing as a student and played by 24-year-old Drew Barrymore. But looking at high school through the reflective lens of its lead is ultimately what makes it so nostalgic.
Josie “no longer Josie Grossie” Gellar reluctantly returns to her alma mater to report on “kids today.” And it’s almost like she never left. Still roaming the halls are the ones who fit in, the ones who don’t, and lingering insecurities about her place in it all. But the most nostalgic aspect lies in the real connections. Reliving high school rites of passage, Josie learns from her present peers, but through a more mature and empathetic lens.
Unrealistic aspects aside, it’s an honest glimpse into how acceptance, rejection, and like-minded friendships often shape the high school experience.
Dead Poet’s Society (1989)
Dead Poet’s Society is set at an all-male boarding school. Robin Williams plays the insightful and supportive English teacher you never knew you always needed. He awakens something in his students through the power of the written word, namely poetry. Suddenly, school is not just somewhere students are obligated to be, but there’s a class worth waking up for.
Dead Poet’s Society is tragic, touching, and full of eternal sentiments about discovering who we are. It beautifully tells the human tale of who we can be if we put our minds to it. The inspiring story highlights the power of our deepest desires and dreams. And how sometimes, all we needed in high school was the right push.
Freedom Writers (2007)
Last but certainly not least, Freedom Writers makes the cut. It holds the rare distinction of being a feel-good movie loaded with high school nostalgia that’s based on a true story. And it’s painfully honest throughout. Like Dead Poet’s Society, the special and unique student-teacher relationship within will leave you feeling unexpectedly reminiscent and inspired.
As the story goes, a group of high school students is deemed “at-risk” and “incapable of learning,” but one dedicated teacher sees them differently. They’re assigned reading material that relates to their lives and she tells them to keep journals. Those journals not only give them a safe space to express themselves but wind up illuminating how the students are connected to each other, no matter how divided they feel.
And if you’re in the mood for a true tear-jerker, start here.