Head of the class 

Films that graduate summa cum laude

When I graduated college Spike Lee delivered the commencement address. In between anecdotes from his time directing Clockers and Malcolm X, he went for an easy “Do the right thing” theme. He only mentioned Denzel once.

Three years earlier I was lucky enough to hear James Earl Jones give a similar graduation speech. He saved his money line for the end: “And may the force be with you,” he told a roaring crowd of graduates. Never mind that Darth Vader pimped for the Dark Side.

The lesson behind both speeches: Don’t be afraid to give graduates what they want, and keep things simple. When it comes to college graduation movies, the same predictable approach applies. Almost every one sticks to a certain angst-ridden, decade-defining, what-now formula, and these five films did that best.

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)

Let’s just say Demi Moore has aged infinitely better than her film. This Brat Pack favorite features a who’s-who of ’80s stars, like Moore, fighting a what’s-what of ’80s ailments in the haze of post-college confusion. Moore’s a cokehead who sports crimped hair and lives in a pink apartment. Dirt-poor but earnest Emilio Estevez stalks med student Andie MacDowell, a woman he can never have because he doesn’t make enough money. Rob Lowe plays the saxophone, wears dangly earrings, drinks too much and refuses to grow up. Andrew McCarthy sleeps with Judd Nelson’s fiancée, Ally Sheedy, who wonders in one fleeting moment why things can’t go back to the way they were in college. And there you have it—they can’t. End of story.

But before we hammer home the point, we get to see Moore lock herself in her empty pink apartment trying to, I guess, freeze herself to death. And then we see McCarthy, Sheedy and Nelson, while trying to save Moore, solve all their problems on the apartment’s fire escape. And then Lowe finds himself after becoming Moore’s actual savior. Silly, silly stuff, but still entertaining, much like Falco and Dexys Midnight Runners.

Kicking and Screaming (1995)

Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) delivered a much better written, infinitely smarter, more timeless version of St. Elmo’s Fire. Bonus points for it being his first film—Baumbach wrote, directed and acted in this underappreciated autobiographical gem while just 26 years old.

Nothing much happens in Kicking and Screaming, but the writing’s sharp. Four mostly intelligent dudes have no idea what to do now that college is over—one’s girlfriend leaves him for Prague, another wimps out on grad school in Milwaukee, a third re-enrolls in school for lack of a better option (and to keep dating Parker Posey) and the last one, Max, endlessly spins his wheels.

“I’m too nostalgic,” Max says at one point. “I’ll admit it.”

“We graduated four months ago,” says his friend. “What can you possibly be nostalgic for?”

“I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory…and I didn’t have a good time.”

Character development exists only in the sense that you feel like you’ve probably churned through the same thoughts as these characters, but it’s enough to make this the best by-the-numbers college graduation film of the bunch.

Into the Wild (2007)

Mentioned mostly as a cautionary tale for those truly frazzled UM seniors who want to romanticize Christopher McCandless’ epic—and pretty stupid—vision quest to Alaska after graduating from Emory University. Remember that he dies in the end. And remember there are other ways to escape reality, hug trees and run naked in nature. That’s what UM’s Environmental Studies Program is for.

Reality Bites (1994)

Ben Stiller’s no Noah Baumbach, at least when it comes to graduation movies. Stiller directed and starred in this much more popular Generation X ode that is to the ’90s what St. Elmo’s Fire is to the ’80s. (Seriously, almost nothing in Kicking and Screaming screams 1995, but just look at Stiller’s attire here as an executive at an MTV-like cable channel and you’re instantly in the costume shop of “Beverly Hills 90210.”)

The story centers on aspiring documentary filmmaker Winona Ryder, razor-tongued slacker Ethan Hawke and Stiller as the polite professional who “sold out” for having made it. Guess which one ends up with Ryder in the end?

Everything you need to know about the film occurs in this snappy exchange:

“I just don’t understand why things just can’t go back to normal at the end of the half hour like on the ‘Brady Bunch’ or something,” says Ryder, echoing, more or less, Sheedy’s line in St. Elmo’s Fire.

“Well, ’cause Mr. Brady died of AIDS,” counters Hawke.

The Graduate (1967)

The valedictorian of this list, without question. Mike Nichols’ classic still represents the generational divide between college grads and their parents. Dustin Hoffman simply wants to return home with his degree and think things through before starting his life. His suburban folks want him to get started climbing the corporate ladder; they mention plastics more than once. Meanwhile, Anne Bancroft provides the best coming-of-age teachings a befuddled 20-something boy could dream for. And to think, some kids only remember this film for the Simon & Garfunkle soundtrack. Here’s some real world homework: Watch this, graduates, if you haven’t already.
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