Being a teenager is tough, but it’s also thrilling, and the best teen movies capture the angst and the exuberance of adolescence in equal measure. Released 40 years ago this month, Allan Arkush’s Rock ’n’ Roll High School may have started out as a cynical, trend-chasing cash-in from notoriously trend-chasing B-movie producer Roger Corman, but it embodies the spirit of being a teenager in a way that only a handful of movies in each generation can, and decades later it remains a remarkably fresh reflection of the teenage experience.
Starring P.J. Soles as teenage rocker Riff Randell and Dey Young as her science-nerd best friend Kate Rambeau, RNRHS puts female friendship at the center of its story, even as Riff obsesses over the Ramones and Kate obsesses over dorky football captain Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten).
Although they come from opposite ends of the high-school social spectrum, Riff and Kate are inseparable, endlessly supportive of each other’s goofy ambitions and united in their contempt for new Vince Lombardi High School principal Miss Togar (Mary Woronov). The opening tour through the school’s bustling courtyard introduces Riff spinning records and Kate conducting some sort of scientific demonstration, and they never lose sight of their particular passions, each pursuing teenage rebellion in her own way. For Riff, that means ditching school to make sure she’s first in line for tickets to see the Ramones, while a straight-faced Kate passes Miss Togar increasingly unlikely notes excusing Riff from class. Shy Kate longs to be like the confident, popular Riff, but she never compromises her identity to score the man of her dreams.
Part of what’s refreshing about RNRHS is its rejection of typical teen-movie hierarchies. Not only are the punk rocker and the science nerd best friends, but the science nerd also unabashedly lusts after the football star, who is in turn totally crushing on the punk rocker. What other teen movie would put someone like Riff at the top of the high-school pecking order, or make someone like Tom into an awkward doofus who gets tongue-tied talking to girls about the weather? The filmmakers (including Arkush and his co-writers Joe Dante, Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch, and Joseph McBride) never judge Riff or Kate for their desires. That means that Riff can fantasize about the Ramones playing in her bedroom and Kate can approach high-school fixer Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) about her need to get laid without the movie condescending to them (or to the feelings of real teenage girls).
If RNRHS were made today, it wouldn’t star the Ramones, and it certainly wouldn’t end with a school explosion as catharsis. Instead, it might look like one of the smart, funny and empathetic movies about teenage girls made in the last few years by women filmmakers, with echoes of the friendship between Riff and Kate in their central female bonds. Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen (2016), Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), Augustine Frizzell’s Never Goin’ Back (2018) and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019) keep their stories a bit more grounded than a Corman production, but all four movies give teen-girl best friends the chance to be silly, horny, supportive, and passionate in the all-consuming way that only teenagers can be.
Riff and Kate never fight, not even when they’re sort of competing for the same guy (Tom may be mooning over Riff, but Riff only has eyes for Joey Ramone), and RNRHS never explores their home lives or future ambitions. They’re a bit one-dimensional compared to the main characters in the recent teen-girl comedies, although Soles and Young suggest a lot of emotional depth beneath their upbeat exteriors. There’s more turmoil in the relationships between Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) in The Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and Julie (Beanie Feldstein) in Lady Bird, Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone) in Never Goin’ Back, and Molly (Feldstein again) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) in Booksmart. As supportive and loving as these duos are, they all come to moments of crisis that test (and then reaffirm) their friendships, usually over romantic relationships and the hazards of growing up (and apart).
Just as Riff cheers Kate on during gym class when Kate struggles with the rope climb, Julie cheers Lady Bird as she gives her school election campaign speech, these characters serving as each other’s support systems when adults (including parents and teachers) prove inadequate. There are no parents in RNRHS, but Miss Togar is the embodiment of pitiless adult authority, stamping out anything remotely fun or creative. She’s balanced by open-minded music teacher Mr. McGree (Paul Bartel), who objects to her draconian measures and even embraces the musical genius of the Ramones, whom he eventually places alongside the great classical composers.
The recent teen films are more sympathetic to the adults in their characters’ lives, even in some cases taking the teens to task for their lack of appreciation for grown-ups who make their lives better. Nadine and Lady Bird both have to learn how much their mothers mean to them, and they both benefit from understanding teachers in the mold of Mr. McGree, who can see past rules to the complex human beings in their classrooms. Even the stoner dropouts of Never Goin’ Back have a boss who wants nothing more than to see them succeed, despite how hard they work to sabotage his faith in them.
Ultimately RNRHS isn’t about deep emotions or painful truths; it’s about the awesomeness of a rebellious rock band, the hormonal flood of teenage horniness, and the rush of giving the middle finger to authority figures. “I don’t want to have fun; I want to be with Tom,” Kate tells Riff when her friend drags her to a Ramones concert, but fun is what matters most. Riff and Kate are Nadine and Krista getting wasted when Nadine’s mom is out of town, Lady Bird and Julie giggling while scarfing down communion wafers, Angela and Jessie dreaming about seeing real dolphins at the beach, Molly and Amy on a quest to attend their first real high school party.
“I think we’re done with the learning portion of high school,” Lady Bird tells the studious Julie, but learning in these movies isn’t about being in a classroom. It’s about the experience of being young, having a best friend, and caring more about frivolous and ephemeral things than you ever will again in your life.