With honors: Eight graduation movies worth watching on DVD

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; 12:00 AM

It's the time of year when mortarboards sail into the sky, placing punctuation marks on graduation ceremonies in the Washington area, around the country and -- if you watch the right movie on DVD -- perhaps on your television screens.

A great many films have focused on the elation that comes with receiving a diploma and the mix of anxiety, confusion and hope that inevitably follows. Whether you've recently donned a cap and gown or plan to in the near future, here's a list of eight of the most memorable contributions to the graduation genre, all available on DVD and/or Blu-ray and designed to deliver relatable, occasionally thought-provoking entertainment during these days of pomp, circumstance and uncertainty.

"The Graduate": When Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns to his parents' Pasadena home after graduating from college, all he's got in front of him is a backyard swimming pool, family friends who swear to the immense promise in the plastics industry and a festering sense of doubt. His method of coping -- entering into an affair with the alluring Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) while simultaneously falling for her daughter -- is, suffice it to say, probably not an example any young grad should seek to emulate. But man, in the hands of Oscar-winning filmmaker Mike Nichols, it makes a heck of a film.

"Adventureland": Greg Mottola's little-seen, low-key indie from last year accomplishes something that modern movies about the '80s rarely do: it captures the early MTV era accurately, without falling prey to all those familiar teased-bangs-and-Members-Only-jacket cliches. Another reason to catch it on DVD: This poignant post-grad film coaxes fully realized performances from "Twilight's" Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, the latter in the role of a fresh-from-university guy who puts his future on hold in favor of amusement park employment and close proximity to the carnival-game worker (Stewart) he loves.

"Say Anything...": Is any modern high school graduation scene more memorable than the one Cameron Crowe captures in "Say Anything...," complete with its flotilla of parents running old-school video cameras and a senior class sing-a-long to "The Greatest Love of All"? As funny as that moment is, though, it's Crowe's obvious affection for kickboxer Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye) -- two teens trying to incorporate true love into their longterm life plans -- that keeps us coming back for repeat viewings. Well, that and Cusack's "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career" speech, which remains the perfect answer to the perennial question: "So what are your plans after graduation?"

"American Graffiti": Before he immersed himself in Jedi knights and Wookies, George Lucas insightfully captured a pivotal 1962 summer night in the lives of several recent high school grads (Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss among them) who spend their post-sunset hours aimlessly cruising the streets of Modesto, Calif., and, somehow, simultaneously making major decisions about their futures.

"St. Elmo's Fire": Watching a bunch of attractive Brat Packers bond and bicker in a setting best described as a facsimile of Washington, D.C. admittedly doesn't qualify as high art. But 25 years after its initial release, the guilty pleasures still abound in this 1985 tale of Georgetown University buddies navigating life post-commencement. Yes, John Paar's theme song is still lame. But the chemistry between the then up-and-coming members of the ensemble -- including Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy and Andrew McCarthy -- is anything but.

"Into the Wild": Sean Penn directs this moving, Academy Award-nominated adaptation of the book based on the true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man who earned his degree from Emory University, then shed his identity and immersed himself in the remote Alaskan wilderness without informing his family. Diploma holders hopefully won't aim to repeat McCandless's tragic mistakes. But learning about his experience may spark some soul-searching about what it means to truly, bravely, pursue an unconventional path.

"Reality Bites": This 1994 romantic comedy about a budding documentarian (Winona Ryder) tackles the same coming-of-age issues as pretty much any post-grad movie. But it does so while speaking the specific language of Generation X, which means the personal and professional struggles of the movie's core foursome (Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Steve Zahn and Janeane Garofalo) are peppered with references to "Melrose Place" and "Schoolhouse Rock." Even the college commencement speech that opens the movie is a classic of the slacker-celebrating era. After excoriating baby boomers for "disemboweling their revolution for a pair of running shoes," valedictorian Ryder asks: "What can we do to repair all the damage we have inherited?" After losing her place on the page, Ryder quickly realizes that, like so many graduates who come before her and who will come after, she has absolutely no idea.

"Carousel": The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, adapted most notably for the screen in 1956, is primarily an "It's a Wonderful Life"-esque story about a rotten guy trying to make amends from purgatory for mistreating his faithful wife. But its emotional climax comes at the end, when the passed-on rogue watches from afar as his now grown daughter graduates from high school and joins in a reprise of the show's most famous number, one that can still bring comfort to every cap-and-gown wearer with fears about the future: "You'll Never Walk Alone."

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