Judging the Accuracy of High School Nerd Movies (As Only a Real Nerd Could Do)

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High school was not a great time for me.  It was four years of humiliation, of getting harassed and rejected…and that was my home life.  At school it was even worse.  I was picked on and physically assaulted almost hourly, as though guidance counselors squeezed that into their students’ schedules.  “Fourth period I’ve put you in Geometry,” they would say, “with PE fifth period.  After that, I’ve got you spending sixth period hitting Bill Panara in the chest and making mean comments about his acne.”

It was nightmare.  I had exactly one girlfriend and that romance lasted all of a week.  We burned out fast, one might say.  Another might say she came to her senses.  Regardless, years have now passed and I’ve bloomed into the lovely flower I’ve always imagined myself being…commonly called the ‘wallflower.’  I get nervous around people and am still, at heart, the same socially awkward young man I was at 14.

Maybe due to some lingering bitterness, I’m strangely drawn to watching every movie about high school that pops up at theatres like a whitehead on my nose during 9th grade science class. Most of the time, I find them to be likeably dumb (take for instance Can’t Hardly Wait or Mean Girls), although in rare instances they transcend the genre and make for brilliant cinema, as in the cases of Donnie Darko or Election.  But I’ll leave the critiques to people like Roger Ebert and that annoyingly smarmy guy who replaced Gene Siskel.  This blog post is not about the quality of high school movies, but instead about the accuracy of high school movies that center around a geeky character.  As I alluded to earlier, being a 16-year-old misfit was my authentic experience; hence I feel I can gauge how accurately that is being portrayed on screen.  Watching a high school movie, for me, is somewhat akin to a WWII vet to sitting through Saving Private Ryan.  How good or bad the movie is becomes largely secondary to judging the realness of what’s going on.

Beginning with this year’s indie hit, Terri, here are my authenticity ratings of some modern nerd masterpieces.  Feel free to make your own ratings, but only if you’ve ever had to wear large glasses or glue a retainer to the roof of your mouth with denture cream.

Terri (2011) – The title character is a big fat kid who wears pajamas to school, is picked on (in an offscreen kind of way), and eventually develops a crush on the school slut.  The movie isn’t bad, but sadly it doesn’t rate highly on the authenticity scale.  First, the slutty girl – who in real life would be the most popular girl in her grade – is outcasted after letting some boy touch her in Home Economics class.  Heck, I know guys who touched themselves in class and got less flack for it.  Secondly, the movie yet again goes down the annoying path of having some very attractive young lady fall for the nerd because she sees the goodness of his heart.  Things don’t work like that in the real world, nor do I believe Terri would later burst into tears when she gets drunk and starts seducing him.  Why does the nerd always have super morals?  See, Terri only wants a good girl, one who doesn’t need a bottle of vodka before she strips off his enormous PJs and ravishes his amoeba-like body.  Cut the phony ethics, Terri, and be happy with what the screenwriters give you.  Authenticity Rating: 4 out of 10

Napoleon Dynamite – I’m not ashamed to say that I love this movie.  It’s really funny and it soothes my resentful, angry nerd soul.  I like that it gives no dimension to any of the characters besides the geeky heroes.  The jock guy barely even has lines – he simply looks like a jock guy and that’s good enough.  I also like that the girl who plays the love interest isn’t a knock out and that she and Napoleon Dynamite are too shy to ever do anything together.  Sure, the end hints that they’ll start dating, but it isn’t shoved down my throat.  The climatic dance is also brilliant, as Napoleon’s triumph is just the result of him continuing to be weird until he does something so odd it’s kind of terrible and kind of great.  It also adds accuracy that he seems miserable for most of the movie.  “Do chickens have large talons?”  Authenticity Rating: 8 out of 10.

American Pie – This one is kind of a classic, so it must be discussed.  The key difference with American Pie and other movies is that these characters aren’t really nerds – they’re in the pupa stage of becoming moronic frat boys.  I give the movie leeway because of that.  Plus, the main male character has sex with a pie and the main female character has sex with a flute.  Nothing much in the movie is sugarcoated besides, I guess, Jason Biggs’ penis.  Try saying that five times fast…no, don’t.  I don’t want your roommate wondering why you’re looking at a computer screen, obsessively repeating Jason’s Big Penis.  Authenticity Rating: 6 out of 10.

Welcome to the Dollhouse – The story of Dawn Weiner is almost too painful for me to watch.  Yeah, it’s funny.  It’s also incredibly mean-spirited and merciless.  In other words, it’s really accurate.  Authenticity Rating: 10 out of 10.

Superbad – I’ll start by saying that Superbad, as a movie, is better than Welcome to the Dollhouse.  That said, as accuracy goes, this one’s about as big a fantasy as Lord of the Rings or Spiderman 2 was.  Firstly, we have the doe-eyed babe who, inexplicably, is romantically interested in Jonah Hill.  I went to high school with guys who look like Jonah Hill.  You know who wants to date them?  Girls who look like Jonah Hill, that’s who.  Secondly, we’re again given the Noble Nerd, as Michael Cera refuses to go past first base with his drunken crush.  Lastly, and most importantly, not just any girl, but an attractive girl has sex with McLovin.  In reality, Golem has a better chance of scoring with Sam than McLovin would have with that redheaded girl.  I think the problem here is the same thing that happened with Terri.  In both cases, we have movies about nerds being made by people who never experienced nerdom themselves.  Terri is directed by Azazel Jacobs, the son of iconic avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, and Superbad is written by Seth Rogan, who was on a nationally syndicated television series when he was 16 (Freaks and Geeks).  People give Seth Rogan a nerd pass because he’s chubby and Jewish; hey, when I was 16, my idea of a romantic evening was watching Red Shoe Diaries alone in the basement with the TV on mute.  I think Seth Rogan, in Hollywood and on a television program, was doing a little bit better than that.  At the very least, I’m guessing he had the volume on.  Authenticity Rating: 2 out of 10.

A great nerd movie doesn’t only capture the humorous aspects of nerdom, but the pain as well.  It remembers that real nerds don’t choose to be nerds – the most important thing to a real nerd isn’t who he is, but who he isn’t.

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42 thoughts on “Judging the Accuracy of High School Nerd Movies (As Only a Real Nerd Could Do)

  1. I was tormented in junior high. It was such a horrible time for me–I was constantly harassed, received threatening phone calls, people threw gum in my hair, teased me, and those I thought were my friends turned on me and bullied me. My home life was horrible as well so I really felt isolated and alone. I was really awkward back then–chubby, weird-ass hair, acne, and poor taste in clothes. Heck, my first real boyfriend wasn’t until I was 21! <–NO guys ever liked me, really. Then I realized that no one has the power to decide who I am/want to be but *me*. I lost weight, straightened my hair, began to learn how to dress myself without embarrassing me, and most of all, I took all of that pain and learned that I should channel it into compassion towards others. I guess this is why I root for the underdog. That was me. So, with all that said, I like those movies about nerds and how unrealistic it seems because sometimes, when you are in that place, it's always nice to have hope that you can come out on top and get the hot girl/guy. Because that really isn't far-fetched at all :) xo

    • You’re like the girl in She’s All That – really a babe under all that nerd get-up. What you described sounds horrible, Cara! I feel for you so much, especially because I had a completing similar experience (my first girlfriend wasn’t until I was 21, not counting the girl who went out with me for one week). I also root for the underdog nerd guy all the time, and I suppose I’d rather have something unrealistic than something depressing. Like I said, it was hard for me to even make it through Welcome to the Dollhouse (actually, Terri is kind of depressing also). I’ll take Karate Kid, Just One of the Guys, or Sixteen Candles any day! : D

      • The great thing about being a “loser” in terms of high school standards is that you can only go up from there, am I right or what? At my 10 year HS reunion, most people didn’t even recognize me–I had to say, “It’s me! Cara. Remember?” Even some of the popular cheerleaders’ (who got fat and ugly, by the way} fiances were hitting on me. Best day of my life. Suck it losers. haha!! No, but really, if you peak in high school, you only have down to go. No one tells you this stuff when you are a kid. In fact, I think we should attain to all be a bit nerdy in school–the sky is the limit after that :) I’m raising my glass to all the underdogs out there {you and me, especially} Here’s to the goofs who didn’t properly date in high school and had acne! To us, the world is ours for the taking… xo

  2. I was the invisible nerd in high school. Few ever noticed me, but if they did….NERD!!

    i have Terry in my netflix cue…coming up soon, but I can already predict you are probably accurate about that.

    Napolean….classic. And you nailed the characters successful and realistic portrayal well.

    American Pie….massivley overrated, but funny. Nothing even remotely realistic about those characters. No one fucks a pie.

    Superbad…yeah not very realistic in most respects…but I’m not sure that was what they were aiming for…i mean, shit…look at the police officers. Still among the funniest movies i have ever seen. it would have been better had thier love interests been plain-Jane dorks like themselves….but the movie was going for GONZO comedy with a little heart at the end. Mission accomplished.

    a great movie you missed on….Dazed and Confused. Namely, the three nerds that come to the party. Pitch perfect and realistic. one gets his ass kicked while the others watch. They all leave, realizing they are…really are…just nerds.

    I’m surprised you didn’t try to shoe-horn The New Guy into this…just cause…you know…DJ Qualls…

    • Good points, let’s discuss:

      I disagree with you on American Pie. I think it’s fairly realistic. For instance, even though Shannon Elizabeth is too hot for the role, I can at least accept the premise that the foreign exchange student goes for the nerdy guy. Also, about fucking the pie…I read a great interview with the great underground director James Fotopoulos where he talked about how if you look at the behavior of a typical teen and the behavior of a serial killer, they’re strangely similar. He got a bit dark, going into masturbation rituals and what not, but it made me think of American Pie. I think teens do engage in weird masturbatory things, and although the movie treats it very lightly, it’s an interesting and unexplored (besides Fotopoulos’ movie Zero, I guess, which I haven’t seen) topic. Eesh, let’s talk about something less perverse now…

      Dazed and Confused – Brilliant mention. I totally forgot about the three nerd characters who complain about everything. You’re absolutely right. They’re wickedly spot on.

      The New Guy – Okay, soft spot in my heart for it. And I do think it’s funny. DJ Qualls at his finest. As for accuracy…not so great. It’s the only flick I can think of off hand where the nerd not only gets the hot girl, but also beats up the jock at one point. I cheered though, because it was my on-screen alter ego! : D

  3. oh…comment on Breakfast Club and Lucas too!

    and dude…Karate Kid….probably the most realistic “nerd learns to kinda fight back” movie. The best part of that movie was that the ending took place in a limited-contact point tournement. They made it quite obvious that regardless of what Myagi taught him…a straight out fight would still result in him getting trounced. But point fighting, where whoever the gets the first strike gets a point and then they stop…truly the only fight setting a skinny little nerd could possbily out-duel the bullies…and he does just that. And that speech that Daniel gives in the locker room, right before Myagi heals his knee…ah man, a homerun for every nerd everywhere.

    • Dude! I need to watch Karate Kid again! I know that I love it, but I can’t seem to recall that speech for the life of me. I’m always in need of some inspiration and I’m sure that would do the trick. It’s a brilliant movie though and you’re completely right about the believably sky rocketing due to the fact the fight was in a low contact tournament. I also love that at the end the bully congratulates him. That gets me every time.

      Breakfast Club deserves credit for at least switching the genders with the nerd/popular kid romance, with Ally Sheedy and Emilio Estevez getting together at the end. And it’s realistic that the real nerd – Anthony Michael Hall – gets nobody and has to write the stupid paper at the end. I don’t believe the part where Emilio screams and the glass breaks though.

      I’ve never seen Lucas. I hear it’s a cut above the standard Coreys outing.

      • Poser nerds want all the benefits of nerdom – video games, comic books, being smart, etc – without any of the pain – having no friends, lonliness, inability to get a date, etc. They’re horrible, although I suppose I did the same thing later in high school when I wanted to be, like, a cool rap kid. I wanted the ghetto booty without the ghetto. It’s just strange to me that anyone would want to be a nerd…what person is capable of being a cool rap kid and goes down another path? Insanity.

  4. I’m getting a bit worried about the movies you’ve picked here… I think it’s really making a statement about our age difference. If someone said high school movie to me, I’d be thinking John Hughes’ stuff like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Weird Science.

    I think you’ve even skipped over early 90s stuff like She’s All That hahaha!

    That said, I was a geek in high school, so yeah I totally relate to what you’re saying and the fantasy that is the modern high school movie. But, it does tend to give geeks something to look forward and aspire to, like in the movie Kick-Ass.

    • Haha – I tried to go with more recent things. I grew up with John Hughes and love him. My favorite high school movie ever is probably Just One of the Guys, which is also from the 80s.

      I’ve never seen She’s All That in its entirety, though I’ve watched parts when it comes on cable. I always seem to catch the scene where Freddy Prinze is doing his routine with the hackey sack at the open mic poetry read. Sadly, that could be the high water mark of his acting career.

      I liked Kick Ass a lot. Again, not afraid to admit it. The girl was brilliant. It’s the only movie ever that made me want to have kids.

      • Say what you will, but She’s All That is actually a pretty decent movie! And I love the pretentiousness of that hacky sack scene. It’s possibly my favorite bit out of the whole movie.
        “My soul is an island; my car is a Ford!”

  5. Even though I was a college council member and wore that silver shiny badge and hung around cool ladies. I was still a nerd. =/ and then I grew up to hear things like you have changed a lot and you look different and better than before.
    One thing that never changed is I was skinny and still am and It just gets to my head when people do not leave me alone and mock. Horrible.

    • Yeah, I’ve always been massively skinny and have gotten horribly teased for it my whole life. It’s brutal, man! If I was overweight, I doubt people would be so blunt with their opinions. I’ve gotten used to it though and don’t mind much. Really, they have a point: I should work out and gain weight. I would love to have a six pack…right now when you look at my chest you see rib cage, which is maybe slightly similar.

  6. Ahhh, I’m not entirely sure Mean Girls is considered a nerd movie, but coming from the perspective of a girl who only left high school a couple of years ago, its scarily accurate. Which is nice, but troubling.

    Although you didn’t give it a rating I would also include Donnie Darko as being very accurate in a confusing sci-fi kind of way. When Donnie asks the girl (I forget her name) to “go with her” and she says “Sure. where?”, I think I cried with laughter for about ten minutes. Hitting perhaps too close to home?

    • Yeah, Mean Girls isn’t really a nerd movie (it’s actually a popularity movie, I guess), but I would give it high marks for accuracy. Especially the “cool mom” the one girl has.

      Is Donnie Darko accurate? Hmm. I’d have to watch it again. My one and only complaint is with some of the dialogue, which I felt was too Tarantino sounding (like the bit about the smurfs). Plus I find Drew Barrymore grating. The interaction with Jena Malone was strong though. As was the wonderful Tears for Fears hallway tracking shot.

  7. I LOVE that you rated Welcome to the Dollhouse. It is one of my top fav movies and NO ONE I know has seen it except the girl who introduced me to it. And now you. YAY!!! HUGS!!!

    Yes, something this simple makes me extremely happy… Easy to please.

    • Wiener Dog! If you haven’t already, you must see that director’s next movie, HAPPINESS. It’s way sleazier and equally soul crushing (I actually adore Happiness and think it’s easily one of the best movies of the ’90s). HUGS back at you, Hope! I love that Welcome to the Dollhouse is one of your fav movies – you never cease to amaze me, lady!

  8. I missed this !
    Anyways, I loved Napolen Dynamite ! We have a dvd of that here at home. I’ve also seen Mean Girls, but not the others that are in your list here.

    Although, seriously, were you really bullied? I don’t remember anyone getting bullied in HS though. I don’t know what went on with the guys, but the girls were okay.

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