It’s summer! And it’s hot! So to keep cool, maybe you’re hitting a chain theater to see the latest blockbuster or an indie theater to see the latest festival darling. Perhaps even better is taking advantage of a revival screening of a classic film at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute or the Hollywood Summer Nights programs offered at the Ambler, County, or Princeton Garden theaters. Either way, summer is the perfect time to watch movies. This is the second in a series of lists to celebrate perhaps the most cinematic of seasons, each around a different theme (read the first one about heat waves here).
The theme of this list commemorates the sense of freedom as well as the uncertainty of getting out of school. For some school’s out forever, for others the summer signals a temporary reprieve from grades and institutional structure. Regardless, the summers after school represent times of transition that are both terrifying and invigorating. The films on this list evoke the quiet excitement contained within languid summer days simmering with unknown possibilities. In chronological order:
1. The Graduate (dir. Mike Nichols, 1967)
I was either in high school or college when I first saw The Graduate and it confused the hell out of me. I knew the iconography around Mrs. Robinson, the Simon & Garfunkel songs, and the ending. A lot of the experience when watching such an iconic film is how it dovetails with your preconceived notions of what the film is. I expected it to be a sort of non-traditional romance about a guy who falls for a girl while her mom tries to seduce him. I expected sexy and fun hijinks, but that is not The Graduate.
Rather, this is a film deeply rooted in the uncertainty of the time period. While I still I don’t know exactly what the ending is supposed to mean (other than the fact that it isn’t a romantic ending) in terms of character and theme, the feeling of “well, now what?” is something that I connect with emotionally. I’m not sure Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is really any different at the end than he is at the beginning, adrift and confused the summer after earning his college degree. By any measure, he has entered the world of adults while still feeling like a child. That emotional truth seems to be the key as to why this film resonated when it was released. The late 60s were a time of huge uncertainty, especially for older boomers like Benjamin, and these were kids who were entering a world that seemed less defined and felt less certain than it did for their parents
2. Dazed and Confused (dir. Richard Linklater, 1993)
May 28, 1976. That’s basically the plot of the film. It is a day in the life of Texas teenagers on the last day of high school. The film follows rising seniors and incoming freshmen, while capturing the possibilities, fears, and freedoms of being an adolescent. Linklater is the master of having each scene tell a story and uniting those scenes with well-formed characters. His films succeed so well because they create the feeling of participating in these moments rather than waiting for the next beat to happen. The kids in this film are mostly aimless, having the kind of freetime only afforded to youth. Dazed and Confused manages its huge cast of characters effectively, as Linklater let the actors improv and shape the characters, rather than being beholden to the screenplay. Each of character may not be the most well-rounded, but they feel true to memory, since this film draws to much on Linklater’s life at this time.
Like many of the films on this list, Dazed and Confused is nostalgic for an earlier time. Even though the country’s innocence was long gone by then, it is telling that the kids in this film were the some of the first in a generation to not have to worry about being sent to Vietnam after graduation, and their biggest concerns truly were football and Aerosmith tickets. Kids will always portray that sense of optimism, but so many other films that fall in this category (like American Graffiti) stop to remind us of how Vietnam robbed its characters of their innocence and optimism. Dazed and Confused knows no such burden, and feels like even more of an escape.
3. The Sandlot (dir. David Mickey Evans, 1993)
This film made the list because I was exactly the right age for it. In 1993 I would have been 7 years old. I don’t remember if I saw this film in the theater or not, but it was on television a ton and left an impression on me. It captures that moment in childhood where a kid is old enough to be autonomous on summer days, but young enough to have dreams of being a professional ballplayer still near and dear to their heart. However, as much as this film is ostensibly about baseball, for myself and innumerable other boys (and some girls) around my age, this movie is remembered just as fondly for Wendy Peffercorn (Marley Shelton). I have no doubt she was singlehandedly responsible for the sexual awakening of a large number of adolescents in the early nineties.
While the film is delightfully quotable and ubiquitous in the memories of those in my generational moment, Sandlot is a film I’ve hesitated to revisit in the years since. I feel this way about a lot of films that rely on child actors to deliver the emotional substance of a film (Angels in the Outfield and Rookie of the Year also fall in this category, as do other movies that aren’t about baseball). While these films resonated with me as a child, I’m afraid my memories of the film might be better than the film itself and I kind of want to keep it that way. But based on those memories alone, I can tell you for a fact that it is a better version of The Christmas Story. It features the same sort of autobiographical narration, but since it comes from a less specific voice, it ends up feeling timeless. Or maybe it is simply because baseball movies are just so good, as are memories of first childhood crushes.
4. Almost Famous (dir. Cameron Crowe, 2000)
School is out early for 15-year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit), as he skips out on graduation and out of town for an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine. This mostly autobiographical film is similar to Dazed and Confused, in which the strength of the film is not in the overall arc of the story, but in the pleasures of each sun soaked, memorable scene. And this film has a ton of them. Living and breathing on the honesty portrayed by Fugit as his character navigates tenuous personal relationships and stressful deadlines, all playing out over arguably the most vital and creative period in rock and roll history. Like Linklater’s work on Dazed, Crowe uses his own memories as a basis for bringing the audience into a particular time and place resulting in an end product that feels undeniably relatable despite the extremely unlikely circumstances the main character finds himself.
Memories from this era had passed into myth by the time the film was written, but Crowe taps into the feeling of being there and drawing on his life creates an air of authenticity that makes the film a more real rock experience than getting a burger at the Hard Rock Cafe. Watching the film feels like having missed out on the experience of hearing some of my favorite music when it was new, relevant, and raw. By the time high school age me saw this film, this music was enshrined and picked apart. I could discover it for the first time, but I could never get the same perspective as someone who was actually there. I don’t think I enjoy the music any less, but it is a credit to Crowe’s filmmaking that Almost Famous inspires such feelings.
5. Into the Wild (dir. Sean Penn, 2007)
This film is on the list simply because Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) leaves home after graduating from Emory. The cheeky tagline way of tying this into the theme of this list is that while McCandless is done with academic schooling, he is about to enter nature’s unforgiving classroom. It sounds cheesy to refer to it that way, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Though it made quite a few top ten lists that year, I feel that this film has been left behind compared to some of the other films that came out ten years ago (Zodiac, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, etc. etc.). And that’s kind of a shame. Into the Wild is one of the most purely visceral films I’ve ever seen. While I am sure many of us daydream about escaping our life to live in the wilderness, this film doesn’t indulge in the fantasy as it shows McCandless as much a foolish idealist as it does a noble free spirit. One of the reasons this film has stuck with me is that I saw it near the height of my collegiate cynicism combined with my general disdain for the main character as an idiot, I kind of expected to hate this film. But instead, I was completely captivated. I’m not sure why Sean Penn turned away from directing, but this film captures the aimless renegade spirit that some people just can’t shake. Despite being told out of sequence, there is never any confusion as to the main character’s mindset at any particular point in time. That said, I continue to be vexed as to how Emile Hirsch isn’t a huge star. His performance in this film is an all-timer, and maybe it would have happened if Speed Racer had been embraced by audiences.
6. Superbad (dir. Greg Mottola, 2007)
Part of moving from high school to college is potentially saying goodbye to friends you came up with through all of your schooling. While Superbad doesn’t take place when school is getting out. It is certainly the last ride for these characters. And while Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) try to get the girls they’ve been crushing on through all of high school, everything goes awry. Sure, it is very derivative of just about every other film in this genre, but the awkwardness on display feels authentic to experiences of writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. That authenticity, combined with the warmth of the emotion between the two leads elevates this beyond just a series (of extremely funny) jokes and into one of the best coming of age films of recent memory.
7. Adventureland (dir. Greg Mottola, 2009)
I had no idea these last two films were both directed by Greg Mottola (his first feature, The Daytrippers, is also excellent) until putting this list together. This film represents one of the things that limits kids’ freedom after school gets out: the summer job. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a high-minded but misanthropic college student, ends up spending his summer working at an amusement park. Adventureland has zero sense of romance about its own setting, which works really well for its particular blend of coming of age story and hangout movie. The way the film treats the park is at the core of how the film sets its mood. The film validates that James’ job sucks, but it drives home that the personal experience gained with the people you spend time with at these shitty jobs that make them worthwhile (even if your coworkers are all kind of annoying weirdos).
Kristen Stewart is excellent as the enigmatic Em. The film sidesteps the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope effectively because while Em pries James out of his shell, she doesn’t do it under the guise of a fleeting romance. She remains an aloof love interest, and much of the film involves James trying to understand how he actually feels about her. Meanwhile, the film makes great use of the remarkable ensemble cast including Martin Starr, Matt Bush, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Ryan Reynolds. Martin Starr’s Joel is sort of a prototype of his character on Silicon Valley, as his self-awareness-expressed in droll monotone-allows him to indulge in his own affectations while rejecting the posturing of others.
Honorable Mention: Jurassic Park (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Adding this honorable mention not because Jurassic Park has anything to do with getting out of school except from a biographical perspective. My mom took me and a friend or two to see Jurassic Park (the first movie I ever remember waiting months to see) at what is now the UA Grant Plaza 9 on my last day of school the year it came out. It was an awesome day, and one that lit a fire to my already growing love of cinema, and is now inextricably tied to summer and the end of school.
Whether you’re out of school just for the season or just wishing you were, enjoy the freedom these films evoke. Stay on the look out for the next list in this summer series and rock out to Alice Cooper.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.