Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: As August kicks off and the warmest season begins drawing to a close, we’re looking back at some of our favorite summer-themed movies.
Somewhere between the crafty slobs of the ’80s and the well-meaning slackers of the ’90s sit the students of Summer School, the late Carl Reiner’s 1987 comedy about delinquent kids and the teacher who couldn’t possibly care less about helping them. Roger Ebert called the ensemble’s archetypal misfits “equally forgettable” in his scathing half-star review, but more than three decades later, they remain one of the classroom comedy’s most enduring, if only for the earnestness with which Reiner renders them. You won’t find a more appealing (or stereotype-defying) portrait of Texas Chainsaw Massacre stans, that’s for sure.
Fresh off being named People’s Sexiest Man Alive (and playing Ted Bundy in a TV movie), Mark Harmon stars as frisky gym teacher Freddie Shoop, whose vacation to Hawaii gets cancelled when he’s tapped to teach a summer English course. Shoop’s as disengaged as the students at first, organizing “field trips” to the beach and a petting zoo, but when he finds out he’s fired if every student doesn’t pass the final exam, he cuts a deal: They’ll study, but only if he grants them each one “wish.” Soon, he’s hosting parties at his beachside abode, attending Lamaze classes, and fending off the advances of Pam (Courtney Thorne-Smith), a 16-year old surfer who shows up on his doorstep, bags in hand.
It goes without saying that this is all wildly inappropriate, but Reiner and Harmon are careful to depict Shoop as someone whose arrested development isn’t indicative of a wonky moral compass. Truly, in a decade of comedy protagonists that now resonate as some combination of problematic and sociopathic, Shoop is a righteous dude, a good-hearted cad who’d rather coast on a wave than rock the boat. Is the bar so low that it’s refreshing he isn’t even tempted by his fawning student? Yes, but that’s still notable.
Granted, it’s not as if Summer School is trying to be controversial, or even all that vulgar. Credit the salty ocean breeze, if you like, but Reiner’s film is as easygoing as its protagonist. Robin Thomas’ stuffy Vice Principal Gills—a minor threat (and total square)—stirs up some trouble, but the film’s customary conflicts mostly serve to bridge the classroom antics, often spearheaded by horror nuts Chainsaw (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley), whose gory interests are offset by their adorable dynamic. The pair, an early (and amiable) depiction of horror fandom, are also responsible for what’s likely one of the goriest scenes you’ll ever see in a non-horror movie: the one where the students, in an attempt to scare off a substitute who’s no Shoop, splatter themselves in blood, viscera, and gory prosthetics. (It all looks better than it has any right to, thanks in no small part to an uncredited Rick Baker, the effects legend who won an Oscar for his work on An American Werewolf In London.)
Summer School knows it’s not reinventing the wheel. Reiner doesn’t even strain toward the happy ending you’ve been trained to expect, content to say that the mere act of trying is a victory in itself. It’s not the most inspiring of messages, but these aren’t inspiring kids. They’re reckless and rude and often drunk. There’s no untapped genius here, no renewed love for English. But what they all know and their smarter classmates might not is that there’s more to life than school. Summer School frames education as something we endure—not embrace—as we chase whatever it is we’re really passionate about. For Pam, it’s surfing. For Chainsaw, it’s horror. For Shoop, it’s rollerskating shirtless while walking his dog. Sure, grades matter. Just not as much as we think they do.