Ready to throw your cap in the air? The pomp and circumstance of students in black gowns, the anticipation of family ready to cheer their grad, and looking ahead to next steps. Life would pass in a blur without those big moments of celebration and evaluation.
Unfortunately, many films about graduation take it to mean emancipation from any life principles gained from school and parents, with inevitable scenes of boozy parties and one-night stands. Thankfully, better alternatives do exist.
Here are seven films that deal with school struggles and life’s transitions. Though some have a loose connection to graduation, all are worth watching.
Mr. Holland's Opus (family drama, PG, Disney+)
Remember when Disney produced thoughtful dramas with top actors? While those days may be gone, several have been released from the vault. Richard Dreyfuss stars as struggling, unconventional music teacher Glenn Holland who balances building a life with his wife, his dreams of composing, and caring for their deaf son.
Unfolding over years, akin to old-school classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips, it’s an introspective, humorous film with a stellar soundtrack.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (comedy, PG-13, Paramount+)
With his “Brat Pack” films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, writer-producer John Hughes keenly captured coming-of-age angst and anticipation. Known for its over-the-top hilarious set pieces, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from Hughes is about enjoying life and breaking free from how society boxes you in. Life moves pretty fast . . . so go dance on a parade float.
The Blind Side (sports biopic, PG-13, Netflix)
Director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Highwaymen, The Founder) has a way of capturing Americana as few filmmakers do. In what’s mostly a vehicle for Sandra Bullock, winning her an Oscar for Best Actress, The Blind Side follows the true story of how high school football star Michael Oher rose up from a difficult childhood to achieve NFL greatness.
It’s been criticized—including by Oher—for its Hollywood depiction of events, but this biopic still inspires.
Recess: School's Out (animated comedy, G, Disney+)
in a rare animated show that’s funny, well-written, and insightful about human nature, Recess reimagines an elementary school playground as a microcosm of society with factions, elected leaders, and problems to solve.
While early seasons of the show were somewhat grounded, this theatrical film goes in a more sci-fi direction. Still, amid pranks and foiling the bad guys’ plot, it celebrates friendship and the important role of teachers.
The Giver (science fiction, PG-13, Netflix)
On the heels of dystopian YA dramas like The Hunger Games and Divergent, the beloved sci-fi novel from Lois Lowry comes to life in a thoughtful, gripping film starring Brandon Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, and even Taylor Swift.
While the tie to graduation is a bit loose—denizens of this utopia use “release to elsewhere” as code for euthanasia—The Giver is a life-affirming story that grapples with some of today’s biggest bioethics quandaries.
Waiting for Superman (documentary, PG, Paramount+)
Graduation season provides an opportunity to examine entrenched issues of the education system—as seen through the eyes of underprivileged students.
Produced by Walden Media and Participant Media in their heyday, Waiting for Superman gives a surprisingly honest look at school failings, introducing such ideas as “the dance of the lemons,” how poorly reviewed teachers get traded around due to union pressures.
The film follows five New York City families eager to win an area lottery and make it into a well-resourced charter school.
High School Musical 3 (musical, G, Disney+)
Sure, it’s predictable and a bit plastic, but this tween-friendly musical trilogy offers a first taste of Broadway for many kids. The High School Musical series from director-choreographer extraordinaire Kenny Ortega comes to a close in this graduation-focused entry, with basketball, college hopes, and innocent romance all playing a part.
Image: Adobe Stock
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.