Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the high school showdown ‘Three O’Clock High.‘
Everyone’s high school experience was different. Everyone’s high school experience was the same. And for all of us there’s a movie that speaks to the reality and the dream, sometimes both at the same time. For me that movie is 1987’s Three O’Clock High.
Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) wakes up for school and knows in his gut that today is going to be a bad day. The first tip-off is that he’s already running late for opening the school’s bookstore, but it’s the news of a new transfer student that ultimately sets his stomach gurgling. Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson) hasn’t even stepped on school grounds yet, but his legend is already growing. Stories of his misdeeds spread like a game of telephone as students gossip about his reported acts of violence and terror. He’s also something of a “touch freak,” a piece of information Jerry fails to heed when he attempts to converse with the big guy in the bathroom about doing an interview for the school paper.
Just minutes into his day, and only fifteen minutes into the movie, Jerry’s given a death sentence (of sorts) as Buddy says he’s going to kick his ass in the school parking lot at 3pm. He’s been called out for a duel, and like Marshall Will Kane before him Jerry’s soon to discover that there’s no avoiding the inevitable.
The beauty and fun of Phil Joanou’s (Final Analysis, Heaven’s Prisoners) feature debut goes well beyond its inspired take on High Noon. It’s a wildly inventive and energetic look at the failures and successes of a typical high school day, and it shapes the daydreams and anxieties into an exaggerated delight.
The key though is that while the world around him grows increasingly ridiculous Jerry remains grounded. Three O’Clock High‘s script by Richard Christian Matheson & Tom Szolossi (Loose Cannons, but instead of holding that against them go read Matheson’s “Red” right now) establishes him as an average kid on a single day in a single location. His GPA and sweater choice would probably get him labeled a nerd, but he’s as far from a typical Hollywood geek as he is from a jock. Jerry has friends, responsibilities, and a mild crush on a girl well beyond his league – and being a teen movie he also has a female best friend who we all know is the one for him.
Franny (Annie Ryan) knows it too, and at the suggestion of her spirit guide she makes a play intended to help Jerry relax and find the strength to face Buddy. It’s just one of three interactions with the ladies fueled by Jerry’s situation – he also gets a personal invite to the popular girl’s party, and in one of the film’s many highlights, he makes a move on a teacher that backfires unexpectedly with the teacher giving him her home number. This would probably not make the cut in a modern version, but hey, it was the ‘80s!
His in-class seduction of the teacher is just one of the ways he tries to avoid the fight by hoping for detention. He attempts to frame Buddy, he tries to leave school (but is captured by an aggressive security guard played by Mitch Pileggi), and he even betrays his own ethics and robs the bookstore to pay a bigger kid to put Buddy in his place. Every effort fails in spectacular fashion, and Joanou moves Jerry’s day towards destiny with equal parts adrenaline and dread.
The camera spins up to the wall clock and zooms into Jerry’s face with such creative abandon that you’re not surprised to see Barry Sonnenfeld credited as cinematographer. Tangerine Dream’s score – in case you forgot this is an ’80s movie – moves that ticking clock forward while familiar faces bring smiles to your own. Jeffrey Tambor, Yeardley Smith, Philip Baker Hall, and a young but still stylish Paul Feig add to the film’s joyous energy.
All of Jerry’s efforts fail until he makes one last-ditch effort to avoid a pummeling. He pays Buddy directly and resolves the problem, but the threat to Jerry’s body and reputation goes one step further and challenges the way he sees himself. “You’re the biggest pussy I ever met in my life,” says Buddy. “You didn’t even try. How does that feel?” It goes beyond Biff calling Marty McFly a chicken – this isn’t a challenge to Jerry’s masculinity as much as it is a mirror held up to reflect the person he wants to be.
And just like that, the fight is back on.
I’ve only been in two real fights in my life – one with a complete stranger at an amusement park who didn’t like my Dr. Demento t-shirt, and one with a pair of kids who tag-teamed in and out over the course of thirty minutes – and both were slow, dragged-out affairs that left all of us exhausted. Neither had a decisive victor, and combined with a handful of dealings with bullies (typically ending with me ignoring them and simply walking away) I was left with only the daydream fantasy of beating down an oppressor.
Three O’Clock High‘s epic showdown here is just that as the entire school rallies behind Jerry even as they’re convinced he’s about to lose in every way. Buddy takes out two adults who try and intervene including the principal who’s left bloodied on the ground yelling his own surprising bit of encouragement with “Don’t fuck this up Mitchell!” Jerry takes some punishing blows, but things take a turn when he lands a solid hit to Buddy’s face revealing the big man’s weakness. He’s shocked and immediately concerned about losing in front of everyone. It’s a terrific reflection of Jerry’s opposite concern, and it leads to the opportunity needed for this modern-day David to defeat Goliath.
There’s a playful blend of teen anxiety and catharsis throughout the film, but it adds some affecting emotional beats before it ends. Buddy’s prone form disappears in a nice nod to the ending of Halloween, and Jerry’s celebration is short-lived as he’s reminded of the money he stole earlier. The next morning though sees the students come together with an impromptu fundraiser of sorts. The miracle is capped with Buddy’s return – the room falls silent, he raises a fist to Jerry’s face, and then lowers it to release the wad of cash onto the counter before showing the hint of a Mona Lisa smile and leaving. It’s not quite the heavy toll and triumph of films like Lucas or My Bodyguard, but it’s a rousing and cheer-worthy finale all the same.
Three O’Clock High is a celebration of the underdog who rises up against the odds, and as the credits roll the rumors being passed between the students are building a new legend for Jerry. As the film club members who want to document his supposed final hours tell him, “Pain is temporary, film is forever.” High school is only four years… high school movies are eternal.
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