Three O’Clock High seeks to answer a question that has plagued moviegoers for generations: what would happen if John Hughes made a movie out of Franz Kafka’s The Trial? The answer is alternately funny, surreal, surprising, and suspenseful. It could have easily come apart at the seams, but director Phil Joanou and star Casey Siemaszko maintain an air of emotional honesty throughout. No matter how strange the circumstances get, it’s easy to relate to the increasing anxiety of Siemaszko’s character, Jerry Mitchell.
Jerry is pretty much a high school Everyman. He edges toward nerdy (he writes for the student paper and runs the school store), but one of the nice surprises of Three O’Clock High is its willingness to eschew the obvious high school stereotypes. Jerry never faces relentless mockery or bullying. He merely has the misfortune of crossing paths with a genuine psychopath, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson).
Buddy has just transferred to Weaver High, after expulsion from various other local schools. Rumors swirl immediately. Buddy is most notorious for hospitalizing a dean who dared to touch him. Buddy, you see, does not like to be touched. At all. By anyone. When Jerry is tasked with interviewing him for the newspaper, he makes the mistake of playfully clapping a hand against Buddy’s shoulder. It doesn’t go over well: the comically menacing Buddy challenges Jerry to a fight after school. Terrified, Jerry spends the rest of the day trying to get out of it, but none of his plans work. Buddy makes short work of the hulking jock Jerry hires to fight on his behalf. He also tears the alternator out of Jerry’s car. Even Jerry’s bizarre attempt to get detention—thus preventing the showdown “honestly”—fails, for hilarious reasons I won’t spoil.
As the day drags on, Weaver High School becomes a playground for strange, colorful characters (which include Mitch Pileggi as a security guard who takes his job very seriously and Anne Ryan as Jerry’s off-kilter, psychic-obsessed girlfriend). The quirkiness of the characters contributes to the gradual fever-dream feeling that permeates the second half of the film. Everyone feels a few ticks off-center, including Jerry, and the heightened reality lends a strangely epic quality to the fight itself.
Tonally, Joanou pulls off quite a feat in portraying high school as both horrifically nightmarish and patently absurd. He trots out every trick in the slick, stylish director’s book—long Steadicam takes, perfect match cuts, super-low angles, camera movements that defy description. Flashiness like Joanou’s can get annoying when it feels like it’s overcompensating for a shallow story, but Joanou manages to make his stylistic abuse both match the action and enhance the dreamy feel of the narrative.
The story combines deft satire with an encapsulation of the average high school experience: fear, confusion, and anxiety intermingling with increasingly serious interactions with the foreign world of adults. Jerry is a kid in over his head, and Three O’Clock High ultimately reveals itself as a goofy coming-of-age story, with his decision to fight instead of run away symbolizing his ascent into manhood. Its aversion to stereotypes reveals the strange characters as deceptively complex, which again underscores the coming-of-age themes: Jerry starts to realize the cracks in the façade of the adults around him, and he realizes his classmates—and even Buddy—aren’t as boring and predictable as they may seem.
Like many ’80s high school movies, the hair, fashions, and Tangerine Dream soundtrack may seem a little dated. However, the story and characters hold up remarkably well. This is the sort of movie any teen can enjoy and relate to, but it also manages to capture the alternately fond and frustrating memories most adults feel when looking back on their high school experience. Why Three O’Clock High isn’t held in the same regard as the John Hughes oeuvre, and why the bulk of its teen cast didn’t move on to bigger and better things, mystifies me.