Bo Burnham is best-known as a stand-up comic, but add successful movie director and writer to his resume! His first feature-film “Eighth Grade” screened on the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival’s closing night, and it arrived – along with plenty of acclaimed reviews - at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square Theatres on July 20.
On Aug 3, “Eighth Grade” expands to more theatres, and to help celebrate this admired slice of middle school life, the Phoenix Film Festival is looking back at 15 notable teen films through a three-part series.
On July 13, we recalled “Five great female-led teen films” and on July 26, we remembered “Five memorable troubled-teen films”. Since Bo Burnham is a comedian by trade, let’s change the pace and explore “The five funniest teen comedies”.
It is no surprise that anyone’s teenage years can be highly problematic, so naturally, humor might be the best medicine. Hence, Hollywood has flooded theatres with high school comedies for decades, which makes selecting an exclusive list of just five so difficult. Female-led comedies like “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “Clueless” (1995) and “Easy A” (2010) are certainly worthy candidates, and every minute of Richard Linklater’s authentic ode to 1976 “Dazed and Confused” (1993) lives and breathes the words eternal classic. Well, here are five more eternal classics: the five funniest teen comedies of all-time.
5. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) – Ask any Generation-Xer, “Who is the ‘King of High School Comedies’?” John Hughes will almost always be his or her answer. From 1984 to 1986, Hughes enjoyed a legendary run of four high school hits that intimately connected with his core audience. These movies also introduced some insight for adult moviegoers and delivered plenty of laughs during the decade of Michael Jackson, the Space Shuttle, the Rubik’s Cube, and the Ronald Reagan years. This critic was particularly tortured in deciding Hughes’ funniest film – “Sixteen Candles” (1984) or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) - but ultimately went with the story that is more madcap, offers heartier belly laughs and holds up better in 2018.
Matthew Broderick is nothing short of a charismatic wonder as Ferris, a crafty slacker who decides to skip a day of school by playing sick – and brings his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) along for the ride - but not without a master plan. Due to Ferris’ reputation, his chief rival, the Dean of Students Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), is hell-bent to prove that this teenage thorn-in-his-side is just joyriding on this particular school day.
Ferris’ excursion through greater Chicago tenders equal portions of magic and laughter and would score higher on this list, if not for Cameron’s perpetual bummer-attitude. His malaise – including one clunky scene with his dad’s car – brings down the fun a few notches, but Ferris’ ongoing duel with Rooney, several amusing supporting players and regular breaks through the fourth wall (“Never had once lesson.”), make this a memorable film in 1986, 2018 and every year in between.
4. “Rushmore” (1998) – “He’s one of the worst students we got.” Dr. Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox) is referring to Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a 15-year-old at Rushmore Academy, who is in grave danger of expulsion due to his poor grades. If Max applied himself, he may or may not earn straight A’s, but he spends nearly all of his waking hours with after-school clubs, so he finds zero time for studying. In a wacky montage, director/co-writer Wes Anderson proudly reveals Max’s other pursuits with smattering snippets of this industrious kid’s work as the French Club president, Yankee Review publisher, debate team captain, lacrosse team manager, and astronomy society founder, to name a few.
While his dismissal feels like an impending certainty, Max turns most of his attention towards a thoughtful new Rushmore teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) and a wealthy donor Herman Blume (Bill Murray). As bad luck would have it, both Max and Herman develop a crush on Rosemary and vie for her affections.
Anderson shows great affection for his material with droll, sarcastic humor and oodles of comical, eccentric visuals. He contrasts his film’s mellow, conversational tempo by constantly filling the screen with lively, unconventional images, and the occasional blast from the mod soundtrack compliments this amusing dichotomy. Schwartzman commands every on-screen second, and Murray’s sardonic nonchalance adds the perfect ingredient to Max and Herman’s friendship/tension.
3. “American Pie” (1999) – “All that you got to do is just ask them questions and listen to what they have to say and ****.” “I dunno, Man. That sounds like a lot of work!” This is one of about 150 exchanges between East Great Falls High school buddies, who are desperately pursuing various strategies to have sex with their female classmates. Of course, this struggle has been portrayed in high school films for years and years, but “American Pie” rips down boundaries with sight gags and uncomfortable sexual hilarity probably more than any other mainstream teenage comedy-hit since “Porky’s” (1981).
Jason Biggs, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and Chris Klein forge a pact to lose their virginity before they graduate in three weeks, but they individually approach the challenge in very different ways. Much of the time, three of the four friends’ individual journeys feel like recycled clichés, but the strength of director Paul Weitz’s film lies in two places.
First, about 10 terribly vulgar and embarrassing scenes truly buck convention but effectively dole out perverse, juvenile bliss. Second, the movie’s supporting characters – all-around jerk Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott), Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy) and band geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) – gloriously steal every moment of screen time and inadvertently outshine their lead counterparts. Levy is particularly necessary to help ground the picture with his character’s good intentions and naïve compass, while everyone else runs towards depraved destinations.
2. “Election” (1999) – Pick Flick! Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a resolute overachiever, relentlessly pushes to be picked/elected as the student government president, but history/civics/current events teacher Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) tries to obstruct her seemingly-destined political culmination.
Writer/director Alexander Payne’s wild, stressful ride first appears as a straight-forward, light comedy, but he repeatedly surprises with unexpected, off-color zingers that jump out of nowhere, like a deer - wearing a clown suit - that suddenly hops in front of moving car. Payne perfectly calculates his series of car crashes, as we helplessly rubberneck towards the scholastic damage.
Witherspoon may have won an Oscar for “Walk the Line” (2005) and is loved as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” (2001), but her turn as the tight-lipped, wound-up go-getter from G. W. Carver High School is her best performance. With perfect comedic timing and both subtle and bulldozing facial expressions and body language, the 5 foot 1 ½ inch Tracy Flick can make any adversary quake in their boots. Speaking of quaking, Broderick – in a hilarious physical performance - plays the polar opposite of his risk-taking, teenage alter ego Ferris Bueller, and Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell are pitch-perfect in key supporting roles.
1. “Superbad” (2007) – Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are best friends and spend a majority of their free time delving into foolishness that ordinary, 17-year-old boys usually pursue. They drink an occasional beer in their parents’ basements, play video games, deliberate pornography, and talk about girls and their associated elusive nature.
With senior year rapidly approaching to an uneventful close, the guys suddenly find themselves with a golden opportunity to impress their high school crushes – Jules (Emma Stone) and Becca (Martha MacIsaac) – by supplying the alcohol for Jules’ party.
The boys’ goals: Buy alcohol and win over the girls!
Sounds simple enough, but director Greg Mottola’s picture – written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – spins a tangled rite of passage for Seth and Evan (the characters) via a 24-hour, suburban adventure. Perfectly cast, Hill and Cera play off each other with Seth’s continuous frazzled frustration and Evan’s genial quirkiness. With sidesplitting barrages of rapid-fire jokes propagated through both casual and heightened conversations and matched with ludicrous – but somehow plausible – life-pickles, “Superbad” is a wild, daredevil trip that tears into the previously-mentioned – but vitally important - teenage goals.
Not to be forgotten, another pal named Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) establishes a third pillar in this mischievous triad, but he’s forever-known in modern pop culture as McLovin. To top it off, Rogen and Bill Hader portray the most irresponsible police officers to hit the big screen since the gang from “Super Troopers” (2001). Cool. How bad is that?
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.