Ah, private schools. They are a source of many great films. Some exploit the institution of being in a boarding school and its hypocrisy. Others draw on the director’s prep experience or a true story. Some are just depressing. Get ready for the designer uniform, dormmates, and beautiful buildings. Remember, all opinions are valid. If you disagree, leave a comment to discuss it. Be civil!
Here are my top 15 recommendations for the best movies about private schools.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 Never Let Me Go, the movie is a dystopian romance. In 1952, a medical miracle expanded people’s lifespan to over 100 years. However, there is a cost to this. In 1978, three friends, Kathy H (played by Carey Mulligan and Isobel Meikle-Small), Ruth C (played by Keira Knightley and Ella Purnell0 and Tommy D (played by Andrew Garfield and Charlie Rowe), are assessed in their private school Hailsham. They will either be forced to become organ donors or ‘complete’ their childhood and leave school. At the core, there are questions about love and what it is to look the other way.
This movie is dark, just writing up the synopsis. You know, I usually complain when there is a love triangle. But, I’ll give the movie a pass in this alternative world. It is so lonely and depressing. Kathy H is a carer who takes care of the donors until they die. These donors are just operated on until they die. It’s dark and unique, with the boarding school being a prison and butcher house in one way. Don’t watch this if you are looking for a light movie.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Robin Williams stars in this American drama as a teacher in Welton Academy, an all-male private school in Vermont. His character John Keating is an unusual teacher who inspires his students to love poetry and “make their lives extraordinary”.
Talk about a timeless classic! Seriously, this is one of those movies that just hit you. Despite his comedic timing, Robin Williams really shined in roles where he could be a mentor to others. There’s a reason he is renowned today. The story gets heavy, dealing with death, parental pressure, and privilege in a creative way. Each character is engaging, and the movie makes good use of its 1958 private school setting. You won’t regret watching Dead Poets Society.
Max Fischer Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman) is a private school student who runs the school newspaper and serves as the president of the French club, the German club, the chess club, and the astronomy club. He is the leader of the debating group and the director of the “Max Fischer Players.” He writes and produces plays about police corruption, urban violence, war, and the like. He is also one of the school’s worst students. When The boarding school’s principal Herman Blume (played by Bill Murray) decides to suspend him, the two form a friendship. Their relationship is challenged when they both fall in love with first-grade teacher Rosemary Cross (played by Olivia Williams).
What better combination between an academically struggling teenager and a wealthy but disillusioned industrialist? Well, not many movies have this specific relationship. Aside from that, Rushmore is a coming-of-age comedy-drama classified as a Wes Anderson cult classic. However, this doesn’t mean it is dated. The fight over Rosemary Cross destroys both men. Bill Murray is good at playing douchebags, and Blume is no different. It is also creepy how far Fischer is willing to go in pursuing Cross and getting revenge. Don’t do this in real life. But it’s still an entertaining movie.
School Ties (1992)
We come back to 1958 for our next movie, School Ties. David Greene (played by Brendan Fraser) is from a Jewish working family in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He gets awarded a scholarship to the prestigious St. Matthew’s Catholic boarding school after proving himself through his grades and extraordinary football skills.
The movie deals with antisemitism in prep schools. Greene’s roommates are antisemites, and he hides his heritage, only for it to come out later. This is a reoccurring theme, with Greene constantly fighting back against the antisemitism of his classmates. If that is not your cup of tea, skip this one. However, if you can watch this, it has stellar acting and some of the most basic yet try-hard names, such as Rip Van Kelt and Sally Wheeler.
Wild Child (2008)
Seeing a rich blonde girl gets sent to a private school to turn into a decent person through the power of love and friendship never gets old. Wild Child features Emma Roberts as Poppy Moore, who gets sent to Abbey Mount Boarding School in England. She finds talent in lacrosse and even finds love. But is it enough to change her? Is Poppy Moore connected to Abbey Mount in more ways than one? Watch and find out.
I’m not going to lie; this is a cliché teen comedy. It’s not bad, but not good. It still makes it on the list as it does take place in a private school. Emma Roberts must have hurt from carrying this film. It’s nice to see her character develop. Everything else and everyone else is just there. The villain is also not that interesting. She is against Poppy for reasons, I guess. If you like teen comedies, watch the film. But there are better ones on this list.
A Little Princess (1995)
Captain Richard Crewe (played by Liam Cunningham) is mispronounced as dead during WWI. His daughter Sara Crewe (played by Liesel Matthews) is forced into a life of servitude in a New York private school under the orders of headmistress Miss Maria Minchin (played by Eleanor Bron). Her imagination and kindness allow her to survive her mistreatment.
There is a reason why this movie was nominated for an Oscar. First, there is finally a lousy teacher! Yes, they exist, and Bron played it excellently. Keep in mind this was during WW1. Tough times can make or break people. However, there were times when the headmistress was brutal for no reason. However, her brutality perfectly contrasts Sara’s imagination and naivety. Matthews plays a cute and loveable child you just want to protect. It’s an entertaining film with a touching moments. Tissues will be needed.
Handsome Devil (2016)
Time for a bit of comedy. Handsome Devil is set in an elite, rugby-obsessed, all-boys boarding school called Wood Hill College in Ireland. The main character Ned (played by Fionn O’Shea), meets star rugby player and new student Conor Masters (played by Nicholas Galitzine). Conor is revealed to be gay, and the homophobic attitude that is encouraged in the school (especially on the rugby team) causes a challenge to the boy’s friendship.
This film is a call-out to the snobby hypocrites of the Elite. One of the ways they do this is through Conor and the new English teacher Mr. Sherry (played by Andrew Scott). He pushes the students to be better and performs a music piece for a talent show (the one interest Ned and Conor have in common). He’s a brilliant teacher until the school finds out he is in a relationship with a man. Coach Pascal (played by Moe Dunford) is a character you want to punch. Overall, this is a hilarious and down-to-earth film. It’s not the typical coming-of-age film, making it much more enjoyable to watch.
The Emperor’s Club (2002)
The Emperor’s Club is set in the fictional prep school Saint Benedict in 1970, William Hubert (played by Kevin Kline) is an idealist Roman History teacher. He tries to teach his students to have honor and wisdom. This is challenged by the arrival of a new student named Sedgewick Bell (played by Emile Hirsch and Joel Gretsch). He is the son of a senator who does not care about his son.
The Emperor’s Club takes a different route from other teacher-student films on this list. Instead, it shows you why being impartial as a teacher is sometimes the best thing to do. We see this in the relationship between Mr. Hubert and Sedgewick Bell. Mr. Hubert has good intentions but has done more harm than good. This is a story of a teacher who has a variety of students. Some he changes for the better, others he can’t change. It shows the balance between the two in a student/teacher relationship. No matter how good a teacher is, the student has to be open to changing too.
Finding Forrester (2000)
When a film is inspired by J. D. Salinger, the man who wrote the classic The Catcher in the Rye, you know it will be good. Finding Forrester follows Jamal Wallace (played by Rob Brown), a gifted student in the Bronx. Whilst wanting to improve his writing, he befriends the Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Forrester (played by Sean Connery). Forrester became a recluse and never published another book. The two learn from one another. Thanks to Forrester’s teachings, Jamal gets a full scholarship to Mailer-Callow, a prestigious Manhattan private school.
The core of this film is the relationship between Wallace and Forrester. The film directors knew this, so the film took time to build up both characters and their friendship. Connery and Brown work well together. It also pulls some top acting from its cast, especially when Wallace puts the English professor Crawford (played by F. Murray Abraham) in his place. Good drama and a solid cast make this film amazing to watch.
School of Rock (2003)
You saw this one coming! Before Jack Black was kung-fu fighting, this was his most known role. He stars as guitarist Dewey Finn, who takes up a job as a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school after being fired from his band and in desperate need of rent. Once there, Finn discovers the children are musically talented. So, he forms a rock band known as the School of Rock to participate in the Battle of the Bands.
Whilst all these other movies show private schools in a serious tone, this one takes an absolute swing at that image. This is a hilarious movie, with unique characters and funny dialogue. The scenes where the kids have to hide the band practice and fool the teachers and parents are just ridiculous but entertaining. That pretty much sums up School of Rock, absurd but bloody entertaining!See also: Best 9 Movies Like Diary Of A Wimpy Kid
Goodbye, Children (1987)
Goodbye, Children is an autobiographical movie about a courageous priest and headteacher, Père Jacques. During the Holocaust, he took in three Jewish children. He tried to shelter them from the war during the Nazi occupation of France. What makes this film more realistic and robust is the director Louis Malle was a student at that school and witnessed the arrest himself.
Of course, there are elements of this film where it’s fictionalized. But the core is courage. The Nazi regime was brutal, horrifying, and merciless. Standing against a command like this in small ways takes a lot. As much as we have various stories of Nazis destroying lives, films like this remind people that not everyone is a blind sheep. More movies of these people should be made and shown, as they are a sign of hope. It’s a heart-warming, gut-punching film of light in one of the darkest moments in history. The fact that this was heavily inspired by actual events breaks you even more.
The Chorus / Les Choristes (2004)
Another French movie makes its way onto this list. In 1949, Clément Mathieu (played by Gérard Jugnot) was a supervisor and teacher at Fond de l’Étang, a private school for troubled boys. He forms the boys’ choir as a form of discipline. However, soon their talents lead to more bonding and their lives improving.
What is it with evil headmasters and headmistresses? Seriously, does being a headmaster take away any empathy from you as soon as you get the mantle? Anyways, it is unique. This is a fictional account of the choir, but the music is beautiful. The choir is always seen as stuffy and formal. However, it never seemed to be a discipline or art like in this film. So, The Chours did shine a new light on the art of being in a choir. It sounded beautiful and was even up for an Oscar.
All I Wanna Do (1998)
You might have heard of this movie as Strike due to distributing rights in Canada and the UK. It was inspired by film writer and director Sarah Kernochan on her experiences at Rosemary Hall (a prep school for girls). All I Wanna Do centers around students rebelling against a proposal to turn their fictional private school, Miss Godard’s Preparatory School for Girls, into a co-ed school.
The first scene sees Odette “Odie” Sinclair (played by Gaby Hoffmann) being sent to the school because she was going to have sex with her boyfriend. That scenario should let you know what type of naughty humor you can expect. Also, the headmistress Miss McVane (played by Lynn Redgrave), was a pleasant character. She’s stern but also has moments of kindness. Between this and Wild Card, I recommend this one more.
We go to South Africa for our next comedy set in a private school. Spud is the nickname given to our protagonist John Milton (played by Troye Sivan), by his dorm mates. It details his struggle to fit in, fall in love and find his passion for theatre.
Out of all the films, this is up there with School of Rock in terms of comedy. Poor Spud is just looking for friends in this crazy prep school. The location of South Africa is not central. The funny moments are between Spud and his teacher Mr “The Guv” Edly (played by John Cleese). These two are hilarious, with the British cutthroat dry humor. It is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it did lead to two sequels. So, this has an audience out there. Just be prepared for some rough humor.
Finally, we finish off this list with a coming-of-age teen romance. Flirting is supposedly an incomplete potential trilogy of autobiographical films by writer and director John Duigan. Flirting is the sequel to The Year My Voice Broke. Danny (played by Noah Taylor) is sent to an all-male St. Albans boarding school in rural New South Wales, Australia. After his last romance, he begins to fall for Thandiwe Adjewa (played by Thandiwe Newton) from the all-girls Cirencester Ladies’ College across the lake. These two strike a romance through the school regulations and racial climate of the time.
Ah, forbidden romance. When done right, it can be a beautiful thing to witness. Even though society does not want the main characters to be together, the audience can’t help but enjoy the couple together. This film also flips the classic bad boy/good girl trope on its head. Danny is not confident, but Thandiwe is renowned for being confident in her sexuality. However, as excellent as this film is, it has now been tainted. Whilst looking up this, it has been revealed that Thandiwe Newton was groomed and sexually abused by John Duigan. That is one way to ruin a film.