I was kind of a mixed kid in high school, in the sense that I had a public self and a private self. Publicly, I knew how to get along in the community. I was very fond of my classmates, I was a soccer player, I was in the musicals, and I had friends, so it was lovely. But privately, I was a kid with big dreams and I knew that I wanted to leave Pittsburgh and pursue film, and write novels, and do all these artistic things that I had no business wanting to do. The movies and the music of the time showed me the potential of life itself, and what I could do, but also it taught me a lot about how I really felt about the world, and how I really felt about myself.
If you name your favorite movies, if you name your favorite music, if you name your favorite books, I almost guarantee, with a few exceptions of course, that 90% of it happens before you’re 25 years old. And the reason why is that we use this art to find out who we are. Tribes are formed, online or in person, based on certain bands or certain singers or certain movies. I’ve always found that sense of belonging to be very powerful. It was something I’ve sought out my whole life, as an audience member and also as an artist. In many ways, I feel like I make movies about high school to pay it forward because I owe so much to the makers of Dead Poets Society, The Breakfast Club and so many others. I just want to pay it forward.
Stephen Chbosky is a novelist, screenwriter, and director. His films include The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Wonder, and Dear Evan Hansen. Learn more about the making of his latest feature here.
I was definitely a child of the ’80s. I remember being 15 years old and seeing The Breakfast Club, and I couldn’t believe that a movie could so deeply articulate some of the secret thoughts and feelings that I had. The characters played by Anthony Michael Hall and Emilio Estevez perfectly mirrored how I felt, because I was a bit of a brain and I was a bit of a jock, but the secret feelings that I had were on display with those two characters. That was my favorite movie in high school, without question.
A few years later, when I was in college, I went to see Dead Poets Society in the movie theater. I couldn’t believe that, much like The Breakfast Club was able to articulate what I felt in the present tense, Dead Poets Society was able to articulate what I wanted the future to feel like and be.
Grease came out when I was in elementary school and I remember loving the movie. You know how, when you’re a little kid, you’re terrified of teenagers? You run into a teenager at the park and they seem like these menacing figures? What I loved about Grease was these were teenagers that I could relate to and that I found delightful. Even though I didn’t get half of the jokes, it didn’t matter. I love the music and I love the characters and I love John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and all of them, really. When I was making Dear Evan Hansen, I watched Grease an awful lot for inspiration. Each of these high school movies came out in a different era of my life. Grease was my grade school understanding of high school.
I was in middle school when that came out. And again, it felt so much older. What I loved about Fast Times was that it was the first movie I ever saw that dealt with some really hard subjects, but at the same time, it was a really fun, enjoyable movie with great music and a great cast. When I was a kid, I remember simply loving [the character of] Spicoli and thinking how hilarious Sean Penn was, and then five minutes later, these very intense experiences are happening, whether they’re sexual or there’s an abortion, there are drugs, all these things that kids deal with, couched in this music-driven comedy. That taught me a lot about tone.
I became a huge Cameron Crowe fan after that, and also a big Amy Heckerling fan. Looking back at my career, there are a lot of lessons that I learned from Fast Times that I’ve applied to my movies. I’ve never made an outright comedy, but still that balance of tone was really unique to deal with real life, but also have a good time while doing it. That was very, very influential to me as a young person, as just a fan, and then later as a filmmaker.
A slight caveat: I love the movie, of course, but I also loved the Broadway musical. Mean Girls came out when I was in my 30s, and what I loved was: Here’s a movie that really is about the young experience, and even though I was older, I found it very engaging, and the characters were memorable. Tina Fey can do no wrong in my opinion, as a writer. It was so well directed, it was so well cast. That’s another movie that showed me how to make movies for young people, because Mean Girls is about something. It’s certainly about something in terms of gender, or in terms of sociology, in terms of how young women treat each other, but also the male perspective of it as well.
At the same time, if you ask any young person, it’s just a fun movie. And that’s important. It’s so important to have both because, there’ve been many, many serious movies made about young people that are very beautiful, that sadly young people themselves don’t particularly seem to like. They know what their world is, they know what their day-in day-out is, and they’re looking for as much escape as they’re looking for a mirror. All of the movies that I mentioned provided both, and there are so many more—I could go on and on and on about the movies that I love about young people. And I’m very proud that Perks of Being a Wallflower, Wonder and now Dear Evan Hansen are at least part of a list for someone else, to pay it forward.