I've always thought of graduation as not just a ceremony, but as a time of life on the threshold of change and discovery. But graduation almost inevitably forces major decisions about what to do next. Advanced schooling? Get a job? Relocate? Rethink romantic relationships? Take some time off? In alphabetical order, here's an idiosyncratic list of movies that come to mind about the joys and pitfalls awaiting high school and college grads.
1. American Graffiti (1973)Before Star Wars, George Lucas did this film based on his own teenage years in Modesto, California. Set in 1962, the film depicts a long night in the intertwined lives of several recent or soon-to-be high school grads in a small town. Two of the guys are supposed to go away to college, and one of them must come to terms with the girlfriend he'll leave behind. What makes this movie work for me is its undercurrent of loss of innocence, for both the youngsters and an entire nation.
2. Breaking Away (1979)Nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, this is a feel-good little movie about four Indiana working-class guys who have just graduated high school. But one of them, who loves bicycling and everything Italian, gradually comes to understand he needs to break away from the ties that are holding him back. What I like about this film is that it subtly captures the spirit of what it means to realize you're finished with one phase of your life, and it's time to move on.
3. Ghost World (2001)
This movie is an evocative look at contemporary American culture as seen through the eyes of Enid, an oddball young woman. The story gets underway at her high school graduation ceremony, which she attends with her classmate and longtime best fried Rebecca. Although Enid is pretty much of a loser throughout the movie, I found myself rooting for her anyway. But maybe that's because, like her, I hated high school and had difficulty adjusting to life as a young adult.
4. The Graduate (1967)"Mrs. Robinson, you are trying to seduce me," says Ben (Dustin Hoffman), who has just graduated college. But young people have to learn that the older generation often tries to seduce them (though not usually sexually). Still, maybe Ben would have done well to go into plastics. I'm always intrigued by the film's enigmatic ending, where Ben and Elaine stare blankly ahead as the bus takes them toward an uncertain future while the soundtrack plays Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence."
5. The Last Picture Show (1971)Peter Bogdanovich directed this closely observed study of Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) during the months surrounding his high school graduation in the dying Texas town of Anarene. Sonny has an affair with the coach's wife, inherits a pool hall, and gets married (it's annulled). As the local movie house closes, his buddy is sent off to war. By film's end, Sonny decides to stay in Anarene, but what can he do there? My hope for him is that he'll add a touch of humanity to this soul-dead town.
6. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Shortly before graduating med school, Che Guevarra was bitten by the bug to travel around Latin America to see what it was like. The trip turned out to have a big effect on him, and he went on to change the world (although whether he made things better or worse is a matter of opinion). This movie drew me in slowly, but by the end I was carried away by the high level of craft, the performances by the lead actors, the superb cinematography and music, and the emotional power of the story.
7. Reality Bites (1994)Ah, the angst of the 20-something Gen X-er! Four friends hang together after college graduation, and the valedictorian camcords their lives. There's lots of period music, and actors Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, and Steve Zahn capture the spirit of the times. Ben Stiller directed and plays an exec at the youth-pandering In Your Face TV network. I think the best thing about this movie is that it encapsulates a certain type of young adult in 1990s America.
8. Say Anything (1989)Cameron Crowe directed this warm little film that opens with Lloyd's and Diane's high school graduation. He's a reliable guy, but directionless except for his interest in kickboxing. She's brainy and wholesome, but overly naïve. Problems arise involving Diane's father, but she and Lloyd manage to work through things together. The messages I get out of this movie are that youngsters can't necessarily count on the older generation to do right and each new generation must find its own way.