With coming-of-age stories, there’s often a fascination with senior year of high school. Graduating from high school represents the death of grade school, the inflection point where you leave your hometown in favor of college, the epitome of new: new places, new experiences, new people. College is the beginning of the rest of your life; high school graduation represents the end of everything you knew.
There are a lot of movies, across genres, that show high school graduations. In the past few years, many outlets made lists of them in honor of the graduation ceremonies that were canceled due to the pandemic. But these movies usually stop short of showing the next step, as if college is the happy ending rather than just the beginning.
When I applied for Daily Arts, I wrote about Greta Gerwig’s 2017 coming-of-age story, “Lady Bird,” which came out, aptly enough, when I was a senior in high school. My friends and I made plans to watch the movie with the joke that we would “watch ‘Lady Bird’ and have an existential crisis together,” but high school got busy, and we never got around to it. For my application, I wrote about how I’m pretty sure “Lady Bird” would’ve made me incredibly uncomfortable if I’d watched it as a senior. My main reasoning is a sequence near the end of the movie: Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”) is in college in New York and goes to a party where she gets drunk, throws up and finds herself desperately missing home. It’s a harsh look at college — not as a happy ending, but a whole new world to conquer and get used to.
In my opinion, although high school graduation might be more symbolically significant, college graduation is exponentially more terrifying. Most people think of a few discrete paths after you graduate high school, whereas the potential post-college routes, despite being roughly the same, feel more infinite when the scale is changed. And instead of leaving behind a class full of people that you’ve known for most of your life, you’re graduating along with thousands of people you’ve never met before and a handful of people that have become the most important people in your life — like members of a strange, often stressed, sometimes intoxicated, consistently loyal family.
This is the last piece that I’m going to be writing for The Daily before I graduate, and all I think about is how I’ll feel when graduation finally hits. It’s difficult to fully process that I’m about to leave a place I’ve called home for four very full, very strange years. It’s worse to consider that, even if I return to campus, things will be irreparably different as soon as I don my cap and gown and get my diploma in the mail. And so, like most self-respecting film writers, I turn to movies in times of difficulty.
Like many rational, older Generation Z’ers, “graduation movie” makes me think of a classic: “High School Musical 3: Senior Year.” Ignoring the cheesy tone of the movie and the logistical inconsistencies (how exactly does Gabriella start going to Stanford before high school is even finished?), it’s a sweet movie that encapsulates the feeling of trying to hold on to the final moments before you leave. The characters all seem to be stuck in a nostalgia before they’ve even graduated, and I’m finding myself in some of the same spirals. What will I remember about my time here before I leave? What will it be like to return?
It’s surprising how relevant the songs of “HSM 3” feel in the context of graduating, in any sense. Troy’s regularly-scheduled, angst-ridden “what do I do now?” song, “Scream,” demonstrates the difficulty of making decisions that will affect the rest of your life. With Gabriella’s regularly-scheduled, dramatic “I have to leave now” song, “Walk Away,” the lyrics (like “No goodbyes ’cause I can’t bear to say it”) hit a little too hard when you’re ready to say goodbyes of your own. Not to mention that part of me wants to come back to campus in a few years and recreate my own version of “The Boys are Back.”
I also watched another memorable graduation movie, “Booksmart,” which follows two girls who, trying to make up for an academically-focused and socially-lacking high school experience, bounce between raucous parties the night before graduation. The story comes to a climax in dramatic fashion: Molly (Beanie Feldstein, “Impeachment: American Crime Story”) bails Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, “Dear Evan Hansen”) out of jail, drives a flashy, flame-covered car through a fence, passionately kisses a boy onstage in front of the entire senior class and then delivers a sweet, “unscripted” valedictorian speech.
In the middle of a wild, comically unrealistic sequence, a slightly breathless Molly stumbles into something in her speech that I think summarizes how I’m feeling about graduation as a whole: “’Cause this part’s over. And that’s so sad. It was great, wasn’t it? Things are never going to be the same, but it was perfect.”
I have a feeling that my graduation won’t be like the one in “Booksmart.” (For one thing, I’m not the valedictorian.) I don’t think it’ll be like “High School Musical 3” either, largely because I don’t think that the University of Michigan’s Class of 2022 is coordinated enough for a giant dance number.
More likely, it’ll be like my high school graduation, where I put on the gown, took some pictures with my friends and family and sat around for a few hours, stuck between a strangely retrospective nostalgia and the desire for the three-hour ceremony to finally be over. If you think about it, graduation ceremonies are merely a culmination, a representation of a wider experience rather than an experience in and of itself. But what it represents are four messy, wacky, occasionally pandemic-y years that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
I can’t tell if watching graduation movies makes the sting of graduating better or worse. On the one hand, I’m tragically reminded that I’m about to leave this part of my life behind. But on the other hand, it’s a reminder that even if the transition from high school to college was rocky, it was worth it to dive into the deep end and enter a new chapter.
For this graduation, maybe I don’t need a dramatic entrance or a musical number, but a quick Elle Woods “We did it!” instead. I did it. We did it. In the end, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.