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Five Movies About High School Reunions

I’ve always struggled to understand the appeal of the high school reunion.  For the ruling elite (namely the jocks and cheerleaders back when I was in school), a common direction for their lives to go after graduation is down, so why attend an event that serves as a reminder of how far they’ve fallen?

For those who weren’t popular or who didn’t particularly enjoy their high school years, why go back and think about all those bad times?  (I don’t think it’s a good reason to go back just to show everyone how you’ve succeeded, or how far you’ve come, and how others should regret having treated you so badly…  that kind of revenge is ultimately hollow). Still, high school reunions keep happening, and sometimes people make movies about them.

Beautiful Girls (1996) 

Beautiful Girls takes place in the bucolic town of Knights Ridge, Massachusetts.  Willie Conway (Timothy Hutton) moved to New York City long ago, but returns home for his high school reunion.  His old friends still live in town, and they’ve met with varying degrees of romantic success.  The search for your perfect love, and figuring out how to reconcile that with reality, is a universal theme. But I didn’t really care to watch this bunch of guys take that journey.

Perhaps because we didn’t get to see anything besides their search for love, they came off as one-dimensional, desperate and a little creepy.  Seeing the magazine pages pinned to the walls in Paul’s room, and watching Willie fall for the 13-year-old neighbor girl, without really learning much more about these guys, left me ambivalent towards them.

The high school reunion can highlight the fact that often a wide range of emotional development occurs among your high school friends in the decade after graduation.  There’s going to be the friend who romanticizes the idea of beauty and love to the point that he can’t possibly find anything to meet those standards, and there will be the friend who finds a comfortable domestic equilibrium.  And there will probably be the guy who’s involved with a married woman (or vice versa).  Hopefully, though, there will be more to talk about at reunion time besides love lives.

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1996) 

This movie is often described as a female take on Dumb and Dumber, and at first glance it’s clear why.  The leads are a pair of utterly clueless goofs, whosedistance from reality is used as a source for cheap (and sometimes not so cheap) laughs.  Instead of traveling to Colorado to return a briefcase, the quest here is for the two goofs to make themselves look successful at their high school reunion, despite their lack of material success since graduation.

But unlike Harry and Lloyd, Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow) aren’t out for a payday or looking to score something from someone – they’re just looking to feel better about themselves.  Furthermore, Romy and Michele are well aware of their own shortcomings and flaws, so they’re significantly more vulnerable and sympathetic.  The reunion itself has the unsurprising cast of characters based on the standard high school stereotypes, and there are unrealistic (but not entirely unexpected) machinations that have to occur to get the story to its happy ending.

It might be tempting to read a message into the film, but it’d be a mistake to call it something other than what it is – an enjoyable but not particularly insightful film.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Peggy Sue Got Married is sometimes called a Back to the Future for girls, but I don’t think that’s fair to either movie.  Back to the Future is fast-paced, zany, action-packed and fun,with broad appeal, and Peggy Sue is none of those things.  But that doesn’t mean Peggy Sue is a bad film.  It’s just that Peggy Sue Got Married is intended for those who, like the titular character, are staring in the face if their 25-year high school reunion, and having some problems with that.  I don’t think someone still in high school (or even high school plus 10 years) is going to relate so well to what the characters are facing.

Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) is about to divorce her husband Charlie (Nicholas Cage), has an extended coma dream (or perhaps actually goes back in time) to 25 years ago, when she was in her senior year of high school and soon to marry Charlie.  After unsuccessfully trying to sort out her situation, Peggy Sue has to decide whether she wants to blaze a new path for herself.  The underlying question she faces – if you could live your younger life differently, knowing what you do now, would you? – is an enticing one that we’ve probably all considered ourselves.

I’d be tempted to call it underwhelming (perhaps a bit boring?) were it not for Turner and Cage.  They were both great here, even though their characters themselves weren’t terribly dynamic.  Some people were turned off from the movie because Turner didn’t look much like a high school student, but I think that was an important element of the movie.  Peggy was a 40-something woman getting a chance to go back and relive/review a key point in her life, with the benefit of her adult perspective, so it makes sense that she looked older.

National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982) 

There have been some good movies released under the National Lampoon banner, some bad movies, and some really bad movies.  Class Reunion is… not in the first or second categories. Bad jokes, lame humor, and raunch are fine, and even welcomed sometimes, as long as there’s someone or something in the movie to care about or take an interest in.  Animal House, Vacation and others have had plenty of jokes that were just as bad and off-color, but those movies worked because they had “good guys” to root for, and you wanted those good guys to succeed.

Here the characters are just bundles of clichéd characteristics. Look, there’s the stoner, there’s the snooty guy, there’s the crazy girl, there’s the nice guy…  I don’t know about you, but my high school class didn’t break down quite so neatly into those simple categories.  I disagree with those who would defend Class Reunion on the basis that it was supposed to be raunchy and silly and funny; it simply wasn’t funny.  If I’m in the mood for that kind of movie, then I’ll just watch Airplane! or The Jerk again.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) 

Grosse Pointe Blank has a clever insight as its starting premise – even professional hit men went to high school. And like the rest of us, hit men are probably carrying some emotional baggage from their adolescent years. For Martin Blank (John Cusack), one of his biggest lingering issues is having abandoned his girlfriend Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver) on the night of the senior prom.

Martin gets a chance to see Debi again when he gets an assignment that takes him to his hometown at the same time as his 10 year high school reunion.  Even though the psychological issues of a hit man are many, the emotions raised by attending a high school reunion give the others a run for the money. A few scenes are a bit overwrought (… the baby gaze… ), but the skillful Cusack saves them.

I liked this movie a lot. There aren’t many comedies that have such honest emotions behind the characters actions, together with a great supporting cast and an entertaining dose of graphic violence.

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.