Recommendations by Film Critic Leonard Maltin

When the team was brainstorming about back-to-school stories this year, we couldn’t help but think about movies about school. Instead of just putting together a list of our personal favorites, however, we decided to enlist the help of an expert. And who better to teach us all about great movies than film critic Leonard Maltin?

In addition to writing reviews and recommending movies on TV shows, Maltin has produced an annual movie guide since 1969 — he wrote the first one when he was only 17. Recently, Maltin took the time to talk with MCML about some of his favorite school movies.


MCML: What movies about school would you recommend to a teen audience?

Leonard Maltin: You know, there are inspirational films and then there are irreverent films. Under irreverent, there are films like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which I love, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “Election.”

They may not be what your teacher or principal would want you to be watching to get you back in the mood for a school semester, but they sure are fun.

We could add “Clueless” to that list, too. It’s such a wonderful film. The same person (editor’s note: Director Amy Heckerling) made “Fast Times” and “Clueless.” She gets in the hall of fame just for that alone.

Then there are some dark ones. There’s a little film — that didn’t become successful – “Art School Confidential.” Very out there, very dark. Not everybody’s cup of tea, but that’s the thing about school, especially high school. Some people are square pegs and don’t fit into conventional patterns of behavior and they need good movies too.

Another one in that category would be “The United States of Leland.” Another film about a troubled boy, but really well done. Then, on a slightly lighter note, there’s “Saved!”

And then there’s a whole genre of films about inspiring teachers. Some like “Stand and Deliver” and “Lean on Me” are the obvious choices, but there’s also “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” with Richard Drefyuss, which is really good.

And “October Sky.” Jake Gyllenhal. A real-life boy growing up in the ‘50s becomes obsessed with rockets and, indeed, goes on to work for NASA, but he lives in a mining town. That’s all his father’s ever known and anyone in the town has ever known. Laura Dern plays the teacher who helps him to realize his dreams. It’s a good movie.

There’s another one that wasn’t very successful, but I think it’s really good, called “Freedom Writers,” with Hilary Swank. It’s based on a real teacher’s experiences in a tough area of southern California, where she realizes that you can’t just teach these kids, she’s got to help them. They come from such troubled households and backgrounds. Her job is twice what it’s supposed to be, but then she unlocks a key, which is getting them to write. Write about what they know, write about their experiences and channel some of their anger and frustration that way. I think it’s very effective, too.

Then there’s a sweet little movie called “Akeelah and The Bee.” I like that film. Keke Palmer was, I think, 11 years old when she made it and she’s awfully good. Here’s a girl – talk about a square peg – who has to hide the fact that she’s smart to get along at school because she lives in a poor neighborhood where being good at school is almost a mark against you. Fortunately, she has a teacher and then a principal who see her potential and push her into the world of spelling bees.

You know, it sounds corny to say that a movie can inspire you or make you feel better about yourself, but it’s true. Movies have the power to do that.


MCML: Definitely. I don’t think that’s corny at all.

Leonard Maltin: Most people like to feel they’re too cool for that. There’s nothing cool about feeling lonely or ostracized or feeling like an outcast. When you see a movie that features a character that you can really relate to, it can make a huge difference in your life.


MCML: When you were young, was there a movie like that for you?

Leonard Maltin: Lots of them. There was a wonderful movie called “Mr. Roberts” and I found that movie inspiring. It’s set during World War II and it has to do with integrity, speaking your mind and not being bullied. It’s a wonderful film.

Editor’s note: While these films are recommended by Leonard Maltin, please be aware that they may not be suitable for all teens. Several of the movies mentioned are rated R, including “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Election,” “Art School Confidential” and “The United States of Leland.”

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