This article is part of Tropes Week, in which we’re exploring our favorite tropes from cinema history. Read more here.
When The Graduate was released in 1967, young viewers were given the chance to identify with a protagonist who spoke their language. Benjamin Braddock is a recent college graduate with a confusing sex life, overbearing relatives, and no plan for the future. At the time, many young Americans took part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The film struck a countercultural chord with this viewership — Benjamin is conflicted about his future and rebels against the older generations of thought. With the widespread appeal of the film came the opportunity for a new trope: the ambivalent college graduate, faced with the task of joining the real world.
Perhaps the antithesis to The Graduate is Booksmart (2019), a fast-paced journey through the tumultuous times of high school graduation. It is obviously a younger film, as its protagonists are moving toward college life instead of out of it. Molly and Amy are wired and full of hope. Here diverges the trope of the ambitious high school graduate, with storylines that often include wild parties and awkward attempts at first sexual encounters.
The high school graduate character needs to try everything before they go to college. Examples include the goal-oriented kids of Booksmart, Superbad (2007), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), who are trying to squeeze in their last kicks. Adventurous tales like these are widely repeated because they are irresistibly fun: they can have highs as high as Ferris Bueller executing a perfect escape from truancy and lows as low as the McLovin fake ID fiasco in Superbad. In these films, high schoolers will do just about anything to feel like they’ve earned the right to graduate and move into adulthood.
More often than not, this transition is rife with awkward sexual awakening. One of the goals of the main characters in Superbad is to have sex; to make up for lack of experience during their high school years, Seth and Evan plan to use alcohol as a ticket to losing their virginities. The To Do List (2013) follows a similar line of thought: Brandy, the bookish valedictorian, gives herself the summer to complete a list of necessary sexual encounters before moving to college. Even Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) is worth noting for its awkward, inexperienced characters, as they attempt to celebrate their last night with parties and brief spurts of romance. Even though they have no idea what they’re doing, high school graduates know they want to do it.
The college graduate trope is also littered with sexual encounters but in a new light. Sex is used to fill the void. In Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), Grover must navigate his life post-graduation and post-breakup. In one scene, he sleeps with a freshman — though he should process the emptiness he feels, this is a quick resort back to the fun days of college. In Reality Bites (1994), a college graduate faces a potential HIV diagnosis after sleeping around too much. While high schoolers look to sex as the start of their mature college life, college graduates seem to use it as a means of clinging to their youthful university days.
This isn’t to say that the high school trope is entirely against clinginess. In fact, the theme of high school films is often revealed to be hidden separation anxiety. Near the end of Booksmart, Molly and Amy finally release pent up emotions about their friendship. Amy reveals she’s going to Botswana for a year instead of just for the summer, a plan hidden from Molly in fear of upsetting her. This is a sharp contrast against everything else the high school trope has to offer. High school graduates are just as conflicted about moving on as their older counterparts — the wild partying and sex pacts shield fears of parting from their youth. Hidden under the vibrant antics of the high school graduation trope is the bittersweet fact that some things must be left behind to move forward.
The idea of moving forward is even trickier for college graduates. Grover’s ensemble of friends in Kicking and Screaming consists of bar dwellers, either too lazy or too afraid to grow out of college alcohol standards. Without the graduation party scene at the opening of the film, one would think that the characters are still in college. They’re too afraid to face a world of careers and families: commitment, in a word. Although its protagonist starts with a hearty set of plans for the future, Adventureland (2009) shows another noncommittal graduate stuck in limbo. He is forced to work at an amusement park as he waits to continue his life in grad school.
And, of course, there’s The Graduate. In many of the screencaps and promotional materials for the movie, Benjamin’s face is empty, ambiguous. He is the epitome of the college graduate, resisting progress but craving purpose. The Graduate set the most important groundwork in place for both tropes by providing comfort and a good laugh to any who questioned the future. The release of the film also marked cinema’s transition into targeting certain films towards a new, younger audience. When the credits roll, Benjamin’s future is still ambiguous, but he is less conflicted about this feeling. He has settled on a partner his own age, finding peace in similar feelings of confusion — just as the young audience can find in him.