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5 Inspirational movies for the back-to-school season


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David Ives - published on 08/12/17

Films meant to remind reluctant learners everywhere that the classroom can be more than just a place for reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Not long ago, Pope Francis explained to a group of Italian teachers that the mission of schools should be “to develop a sense of truth, of what is good and beautiful.” Fair enough, but tell that to the hordes of children whose summer break has abruptly come to an end. Yes, once again, it’s time for the hallowed halls of academia to echo with the groans of students not yet ready to return to class. Maybe we can help inspire and motivate the poor kids, though. Here are five films meant to remind reluctant learners everywhere that the classroom can be more than just a place for reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

One of the first great school films to hit the big screen, Goodbye, Mr. Chips follows a British schoolmaster as his new wife helps transform him from a much-reviled strict disciplinarian into a beloved school institution. It’s an unabashedly sentimental tale that celebrates both marriage and the impact dedicated teachers can have on their students. First adapted for the cinema as a romantic drama in 1939 and later remade as a musical in 1969, both Robert Donat and Peter O’Toole earned awards for their portrayal of the stoic Mr. Chips, so you really can’t go wrong with either version.

Blackboard Jungle

While Goodbye, Mr. Chips may have come first, 1955’s Blackboard Jungle is no doubt the more influential film. It has, in fact, recently been entered into the United States National Film Registry due to its cultural and historical significance. The film’s impact is undeniable, and not just because it introduced the world to Sidney Poitier and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” The movie’s tale of a determined inner-city school teacher who struggles against the twin scourges of juvenile delinquency and interracial tensions set the template for countless films to follow. To Sir, with Love (1967), Teachers (1984), Stand and Deliver (1988), Lean on Me (1989); all these and many more owe a direct debt to the socially conscious Blackboard Jungle.

Dead Poets Society

Somewhere between the sentimentality of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the seriousness of Blackboard Jungle lies Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. Set in 1959 at an elite boarding school, it follows the efforts of a lone English teacher (the Oscar-nominated Robin Williams) to buck the system and ignite the flames of poetry within the hearts of his students. Roger Ebert, whose abandoned Catholicism often resurfaced at surprising times, actually criticized the film for being overly pious in its progressive platitudes. Despite its faults, however, Dead Poets Society remains a moving tribute to the ability of teachers to positively affect the lives of the children in their charge.

The Breakfast Club

Let’s face it though, as wonderful and important as teachers can be, there are many times when kids have no choice but to navigate a school’s hallways on their own. Nothing portrays the humor and heartbreak of such moments better than the oeuvre of John Hughes. While his Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles likely resonate more on a personal level, it is The Breakfast Club that stands as the famed director’s ultimate statement on what it feels like to be in school during one’s tumultuous teenage years. Overly earnest at times, the movie offers much to contemplate about the perils and pressures facing teens who may not always fit easily into the roles their parents and teachers would have them play.

The Trouble with Angels

Finally, we end this list with The Trouble with Angels, the comedic tale of two rebellious teenage girls who find themselves in constant conflict with the unflappable Mother Superior of their private girl’s school. Unlike most of the movies on this list, The Trouble with Angels rarely strives for contemporary social relevance, a somewhat shocking fact considering the film was released directly on the heels of Vatican II. Instead, the movie remains resolutely lighthearted for most of its running time, concerning itself with problems no greater than fixing a busted boiler or having to buy brassieres for a gaggle of giggling girls. Even so, don’t be surprised if the movie manages to evoke a tear or two, especially in its denouement where we are reminded that the greatest act of rebellion has always been and will always be choosing a life of love.

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