It’s the end of August, and both of my kids are getting ready to step into a classroom for the first time since the beginning of 2020, when I made the decision to homeschool them for a year. Not only that, but my 5-year-old is starting kindergarten and going to school full-day for the first time. All of that means I’ve been thinking about back-to-school a lot — like, all day and sometimes even in my sleep. All of the planning and prepping and worrying and excitement is kind of a lot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering what a huge fan I am, movies come to mind.
Getting my kids ready to start school reminds me of how exciting the beginning of a new year was when I was a kid myself, and it’s got me thinking of all the entertaining movies that manage to capture that nervous-but-still-optimistic feeling so many of us experience during the back-to-school season.
From teen movies that set fashion trends to inspiring coming-of-age films, there are tons of titles out there that chronicle the school years. Whether they take place in a kindergarten classroom or on a high school football field, these movies tend to resonate because most of us can relate to the school experience.
Keep reading to see which movies will help you and your kids get into the back-to-school spirit, while giving everyone a much-needed mental break from all the prepping and supplies shopping.
We have to start with this one because yesterday, after taking my daughter to kindergarten orientation, my husband was literally quoting this silly, but oh-so-nostalgic Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie for hours. If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, you can’t think about movies that take place in a classroom without including this one, in which Arnold plays a cop who ends up posing as a teacher.
All the way on the other end of the school spectrum, we’ve got the 1988 Spike Lee classic School Daze. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jasmine Guy, it’s set at a historically Black college, where a budding social activist and the head of a huge fraternity are pitted against each other as they attempt to coexist on campus.
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Most ’90s girls will remember going back-to-school shopping the year Clueless came out — and doing their best to convince their parents to purchase any clothing items that would help them emulate Cher and Dionne. Their knee-high socks, plaid mini-skirts, tiny sweaters, button-ups, and slipdresses were everything.
‘Dead Poet’s Society’
Honestly, if our kids need one thing right now, it’s probably the message from Dead Poet’s Society. As parents, we can only hope that our kids one day have a "Mr. Keating" who encourages them to be true to themselves and make the most of their lives, because of course life is so fragile and absolutely worth embracing to the fullest.
‘Akeelah and the Bee’
For many students, the school year is highlighted by events such as the spelling bee or the science fair, so films like Akeelah and the Bee can be really motivating. Starring Keke Palmer, it’s about a young, underprivileged girl from South Los Angeles and her journey to get to the National Spelling Bee.
The Kobal Collection/Universal Pictures
‘The Breakfast Club’
This classic John Hughes high school drama about a group of very different teenagers who end up serving Saturday detention together is definitive of ’80s teen movies. It’s another one with a major nostalgia factor, but it also offers up a great message about not judging others by their outward personas.
Being the new kid is almost always difficult, and Mean Girls pretty much nails why right on the head. The film is iconic and was definitely the biggest highlight of Lindsay Lohan’s career. We’ll pretty much watch it any time it’s on TV. Plus, it taught us all that "on Wednesdays, we wear pink."
Since we’re on a teen movies tear, we have to include the 1978 classic Grease, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. So many of us grew up watching it despite its many instances of totally inappropriate sexual innuendo. It’s a movie that fully captures the exciting moments and relationships that define the high school experience even today.
Some parents might also be heading back to school themselves this year. If that’s the case for you, Night School, starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, is a hilarious romp of a film that will make you laugh until you cry. And if you don’t have school plans of your own, you’ll feel totally relieved!
‘High School Musical’
We’d be totally remiss not to include Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens’ claim to fame on this list. It may not be exactly high cinema, but High School Musical is a fun family watch to help your crew get in the back-to-school spirit. Just beware, your kids might get hooked!
Andrew Schwartz/Paramount Pictures
‘School of Rock’
School of Rock showcases funnyman Jack Black at his finest. In the film, he plays a musician who gets kicked out of his band and ends up working as a substitute teacher at a hoity-toity private elementary school. Bored and unable to relate to his students, he tries to transform them into a rock group.
Starring James Van Der Beek and Paul Walker, Varsity Blues is a super popular teen movie that came out in 1999. It tells the story of a second-string high school football quarterback from Texas who has to step in as the starter when the school’s beloved star quarterback is injured.
‘Bring It On’
Bring It On, starring Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union, is so good! It was one of the first films to show cheerleading as a competitive sport, so it had an automatic fan base when it was released in 2000. We also really appreciate that it made a statement about the racial and socioeconomic disparities between schools, however subtly it did so.
Based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name, the 1996 film Matilda is a total classic. While no one wants their kids to end up at a school led by someone like Ms. Trunchbull or that has anything like the Chokey on the premises, we would love for our kids to be as driven and smart as young Matilda. But hey, since we’re all awesome parents, we have nothing to worry about, right?!
‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’
Director Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High is another ’80s classic. While as parents we’re praying, however unrealistically, that our kids never get up to some of the antics the high schoolers in this film do, it’s definitely a worthy watch as we transition from summer to school (although, maybe not for our kids).
‘Never Been Kissed’
Oh, how we love a Drew Barrymore rom-com. In 1999’s Never Been Kissed, she plays a reporter who had a terrible high school experience but decides to return to school posing as a student for a story. It’ll make you relive your own high school experience, however awkward — possibly twice.
Starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, Election is a teen movie that actually nabbed an Oscar nomination. It’s a bit of a dark comedy about a teacher who tries to sabotage a driven and manipulative student’s bid for student council president in an attempt to humble her.
‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’
Who wouldn’t want to go back to school at Hogwarts?! Well, at least when there aren’t any dementors there. The vivid depictions of the school, its grounds, and the interesting lessons the budding witches and wizards receive are totally dreamy and always make us wish Hogwarts was real.
Buena Vista Pictures/Touchstone Pictures
‘Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit’
It’s rare that a sequel is ever as good as the original but Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Lauryn Hill, totally is. Many ’90s kids were obsessed with this film about a Las Vegas showgirl who is recruited to help a group of nuns motivate a group of disadvantaged students.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
PG-rated Napoleon Dynamite is a silly high school comedy that’s a good option for the whole family. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s about an awkward teenager who befriends the new kid at his high school — another awkward teenager — and together, they embark on a campaign for class president. We honestly think there’s a great message for kids about confidence and courage in this seemingly inane movie.
‘Curious George: Back to School’
And finally, if you have really little ones, Curious George: Back to School is a fun movie to get them pumped up for their first day of preschool or kindergarten. This wholesome animated story shows everyone’s favorite little monkey as he learns, makes friends, and most of all has lots of fun at school.