CinemaDope: Class Act

I’m not sure quite how it happened, but September is upon us. Soon the streets will seem a bit quieter at midday, while weekends will fill with the sounds of night football games. Right now—despite being on the verge of turning 40—I find myself struck by the urge to head out to an office supply store and stock up on all manner of pens, notebooks and binders. There’s no doubt about it: school is about to begin.

Because I’ve always been something of a nerd, this was my favorite time of year. New classes awaited, with new books ready to be cracked. New faces, new friends, new chances. Every September was essentially a chance at reinvention. It’s no wonder, really, that Hollywood has long made the back-to-school movie a staple; no matter how many times the story is told, the audience is always coming of age.

So before the first bell rings, find some time to relax and enjoy a few of these small classics, some old and some new. It’s by no means an exhaustive selection—I’m not much for lists anyway, and in a genre like this, one’s favorites are almost always decided by age—but it’s a good start, and a nice change of pace from some of that summer reading that still isn’t finished.

Brick: A high-school noir told in the hard-boiled patois of Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), writer/director Rian Johnson’s award-winning 2005 film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, a teenage loner who finds a cause when his ex-girlfriend Emily goes missing. As he delves deeper into the world of high-school criminals, he encounters shady characters with names like The Pin, Tangles, and Tugger—none of whom are eager for him to discover the secret behind Emily’s last message.

Election: Possibly overshadowed by the release of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore just a few months earlier, Alexander Payne’s (Sideways) 1999 film is less stylized but every bit as biting. Reese Witherspoon stars as Tracy Enid Flick, a high-strung overachiever bent on winning the class presidency of her Nebraska high school. Matthew Broderick is Jim McAllister, the teacher who is just as set on tripping her up, for reasons he doesn’t quite grasp—Broderick plays him here as a version of his famous Ferris Bueller, if that teenager’s charmed life had turned out to be a little less than he had hoped for. Speaking of which: grab Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and make it a double header.

There is no shortage of other titles if comedy is your game: Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (starring a young Sean Penn as a stoned-out surfer) provided the template for any number of school romps, while Better Off Dead did the same for a newer, more introspective generation that made John Cusack their Moses. If you’re looking for something more dramatic, it’s tough to beat Elephant, the 2003 Gus Van Sant film inspired by the tragedy of the Columbine school shootings a few years earlier. It was filmed with a cast of mostly non-professional actors, and the lack of pretense or polish to the proceedings gives the work an everyday air that makes its message all the more affecting.


Also this week: A very different kind of buddy film arrives when Robot & Frank comes to area screens. Frank Langella stars as Frank, a retired cat burglar whose grown children—worried for his health—provide him with a robot companion. In this near-future story, Frank and his kind (including Susan Sarandon as Frank’s librarian love interest) are seen as dusty relics of an outpaced past. Which only fires up the old dog to teach his friend some new tricks—like how to pick locks.

Jack Brown can be reached at

Author: Jack Brown

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