High School romance movies are not about high school romances. You may think you know the beats, the form and the codes, but as Words On The Bathroom Wall, which is available to Rent on Digital from today, proves, the genre isn’t really a genre at all. Teenagers at school fall in love in coming of age romances, of course, but they also crop up in horror films, in science fiction, in thrillers, in musicals, in mysteries. The stories can be harrowing and happy, terrifying or tender.
What connects them isn’t the prom scene, the bit in the showers or the quirky teacher, they’re not even, really, films about love, or sex, or the lack there-of. The best High School love stories are about discovering who you are. Words is a sweet and self-aware school movie, sure, and its central romance to an extent runs along those familiar grooves, but that’s not all we’re seeing here.
It’s also a clever deep-dive into the mindset of schizophrenia, using smart visual tricks to represent a condition most of us, fortunately, don’t experience. That “be yourself” theme? Here it’s explored by asking what happens when that “self” is legitimately terrifying; when you’re not just the geek posing as the cool girl to get a date with the jock, but have a nature that scares you. It’s a perfect example of the way the allegedly hackneyed trope of the high school romance can be stretched into more meaningful shapes.
There’s a long tradition of this stuff. Grease is, for many people, the ultimate high school romance movie. It’s also a deeply cynical treatise on changing who you are to be accepted, albeit one with great songs, chemistry and nostalgia, thick with the smell of engine grease, cigarettes and cheap perfume. It is, of course, absolutely brilliant. The most interesting romance isn’t the one between Danny and Sandy, neither of whom seem to really know who they are anyway, it’s the one between Rizzo and herself. Stockard Channing singing ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ is the real heart of the story.
How about But I’m A Cheerleader; Jamie Babbit’s cult 1999 tale of a bootcamp where the gay is prayed away? The love story here is a queer one, which even as recently as the turn of the millennium was a bold move. While the story is told with a campy and absurdist, bubblegum tone, the developing romance between Nathasha Lyonne’s Megan and Clea DuVall’s Graham is absolutely pure. It’s the same message: Find out who you really are, and then be it as hard as you can be. Alas, though gay school movies are common, it would take until 2018’s Love, Simon for a queer high school romance to be told in the same cute, light-touch way of many straight school stories.
Sometimes that message is less than subtle. The High School Musical series writes “BE YOURSELF” in three-mile high, illuminated letters, right across the landscape. In a way it’s the anti-Grease, smelling more of bubblegum and gym socks than engine oil and lust. Its central romance reaches across the tracks between the jocks and the brainiacs to show that we’re, quite literally “all in this together”. Unlike Danny and Sandy in Grease, Zac Effron and Vanessa Hudgens’ Troy and Gabriella can only succeed if they embrace who they are. Sure, it’s a bit like being punched in the face by a well-meaning student councillor, but that doesn’t make it a bad message. In fact, it’s the same message we find twenty years earlier in The Breakfast Club, a movie while not technically a love story, has enough hormonal romance in it to qualify.
Elsewhere the theme can be more complex. In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 classic Love & Basketball the central pair’s romance can only blossom once they get out of their own way and understand what’s truly important. The best high school romance movies make our heroes work to discover who they are before they’re rewarded with their happy ending (get your mind out of the gutter, Schitt’s Creek fans). Gurinder Chadha’s lovely Blinded By The Light doesn’t allow Viveik Kalra’s Javed to fully embrace his romance with Nell Williams’ Eliza until he has fully embraced himself and learned to be at peace with his Pakistani, Muslim heritage.
Ten Things I Hate About You is a classic because both Heath Ledger’s Patrick and Julia Stiles’ Kat have to confront their own prejudices before they can accept each other’s (clever bloke, that Shakespeare). The late ’90s is very much a golden age for the high-school-romance-as-self-discovery story. American Pie’s affable dorks learn to stop treating sex as a target, and thus find out what they’re really capable of. In She’s All That Rachel Leigh Cook’s Laney discovers it’s okay to be herself, while Freddie Prinz Jnr’s Zack basically finds out that he’s been a dick all along and finally grows beyond it. Even Cruel Intentions, a black-hearted re-telling of Dangerous Liaisons, is about self-discovery. Admittedly Rian Phillipe’s Sebastian is rewarded for growing past his shortcomings by being killed, but the important thing is that he betters himself. Just before he’s hit by that car.
Words On The Bathroom Wall is a very 2021 entry into that canon; more nuanced, less cartoonish and aware of the world it’s inhabiting. It has a more serious point to make than, say, Clueless or Mean Girls, but ultimately it does so in the same way: accept who you are, and allow yourself to be loved.