The Wes Dispatch #2 – ‘Rushmore’ (1998) and the Paradox of Change

Stick on a British Invasion record, meticulously organise your possessions and grab a Courtesan au Chocolat from Mendel’s, The Wes Dispatch is Flip Screen’s tri-weekly column dedicated solely to the pastel-coloured world of Wes Anderson. Every three weeks we’ll be taking a deep dive into the Texan auteur’s weird and wonderful filmography to count down to the release of his tenth feature – The French Dispatch. 

“I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then… do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore”

From the flourishing relationship of the young star-crossed lovers in Moonrise Kingdom to the growing responsibilities of apprentice concierge, Zero Moustafa, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the trials and tribulations of coming of age have become well-worn themes in many of Wes Anderson’s films. Even his debut feature film Bottle Rocket is scattered with reflections on the importance of letting go of the past and embracing the process of growing up. However, it wasn’t until his sophomore film, 1998’s Rushmore, that the coming-of-age theme truly took centre stage. 

Co-written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, Rushmore follows a year in the life of eccentric 15 year old aspiring playwright Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and his time at Rushmore Academy, a prestigious private school in Houston, Texas. Despite the school’s academic reputation, Fischer is more concerned with participating in as many extra-curricular activities as possible, including everything from bee keeping to kite flying – a choice which brings him into frequent conflict with the school’s headmaster Dr. Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox).

During the year, Fischer meets Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a middle-aged industrialist who has become disillusioned by his career and is forced to contend with his failing marriage and his own obnoxious children who are also students at Rushmore. Throughout the film, Fischer also begins to develop a growing infatuation with Rushmore’s new first grade teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). 

Screencapture from Rushmore. 3 men and a woman sit at a table in a restaurant.
Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

This obsession leads Fischer to attempt to misguidedly win her affections by arranging for an aquarium to be built on the school’s baseball field. A move which infuriates Dr. Guggenheim and results in Fischer being expelled from the school. In addition to alienating the surprisingly tolerant Miss Cross, his infatuation also brings him into conflict with Blume who develops his own feelings towards Miss Cross and, much to Fischer’s dismay, pursues a relationship with her – eventually leading to the pair exchanging a series of increasing bizarre revenge plots involving bees and vehicular sabotage. 

At its very core, Rushmore is a testament to the awkward and often painful process of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. On first glance, Fischer is an arrogant and conceited show-off who revels in his own self-perceived status as the jewel in Rushmore’s crown, not to mention his behaviour towards Miss Cross which is borderline stalker-ish and is quite blatantly unreciprocated on any level. However, whilst his problematic behaviour is not totally excusable, it is clear on a deeper level that his behaviour is a manifestation of his inner turmoil towards growing up. Even when the situations he finds himself in are so absurd that they are no longer relatable, his struggles remain clearly identifiable as they are underpinned by anxieties that are universally felt during this stage of life. 

In fact, when viewed as a composite caricature of all of the social awkwardness and teenage angst that is felt during our formative years, Fischer becomes much more of a sympathetic character. For example, his frequent claim that his father is a neurosurgeon instead of a barber could be considered a symptom of his superiority complex. When in reality it is more likely to stem from his status as a non-fee paying scholarship student surrounded by peers from vastly more wealthy backgrounds. This can also be seen in his interest in extracurricular activities. Rather than being a means to achieve a higher status, they represent an opportunity for him to willfully neglect his schoolwork and effectively prolong his time at Rushmore instead of having to grow up and move on. 

Screencapture from Rushmore. A teenager holds up a book.
Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

Although the coming-of-age theme is clearly central to the film, Rushmore also contains a parallel narrative in which Blume represents a reflection on the eventual decline of life after coming-of-age. This theme is well explored in films focused on the notion of the ‘mid-life crisis’ such as Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation and Sam Mendes’ 1999 film American Beauty. However, the direct comparison between Fischer’s naive angst and Blume’s world weary frustration provides much more emotional depth to the subject by demonstrating that dealing with growing older is a lifelong challenge. 

Throughout most of the film, the character arcs of Fischer and Blume become increasingly paired to the point that they are effectively two sides of the same coin. This is most obvious when considering their shared infatuation with Miss Cross. To Fischer a relationship with her represents the ability to attain a new level of maturity but still remain in the safe setting of Rushmore whilst to Blume it represents the ability to free himself from his self-loathing and escape the monotony of his life. 

The difference in the end goals of Fischer and Blume ultimately act together to highlight the inherent paradox that surrounds change. The central paradox being that both the presence and the absence of change are equally challenging depending on your perspective. To young people like Fischer the idea of your life being totally upended when you reach adulthood is often a terrifying prospect whilst to older people like Blume the idea of a change to the status quo of life is often a hugely welcome one. 

This difference eventually leads to the divergence of the pair’s character arcs as Blume is now content whilst Fischer is still resisting the inevitable upcoming changes in his life. This resistance finally comes to a head as, after being arrested for cutting the brakes on Blume’s car, he finally realises that his planned relationship with Miss Cross has always been unachievable, causing him to fall into a deep depression of hopelessness.

Screencapture from Rushmore. A man and a woman sit next to a tennis court and a teenager is talkign to the man.
Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

 As well as highlighting Fischer’s plight as ultimately sympathetic, this series of events also sets up for the film to attempt to answer the classic question posed by all coming-of-age stories – how do you cope with the changes associated with growing up? To answer this question, Rushmore focuses primarily on the broadened horizons that change can bring with it and the permanence of existing friendships in spite of changes in personal circumstances. 

For Fischer, his realisation of this comes when he finally reunites with Blume only to discover that Miss Cross has broken up with him. This news spurs him to finally acknowledge and accept the changes that he is facing and embark on a new mission to get Blume and Miss Cross back together again, which leads to him finally engaging with his new school and writing a play.

At the premiere of his play, he arranges for Blume and Miss Cross to be seated next to each other and successfully manages to reunite them. It also becomes increasingly clear that he has finally abandoned his ill-fated pursuit of Miss Cross when it is revealed that he is now in a relationship with his similarly aged co-star Margeret Yang (Sara Tanaka). This sense of development is enhanced even further when he proudly announces his father’s true occupation instead of falling back into his old habit of fabrication. 

Screencapture from Rushmore. A woman and a teenage man dance at a busy party.
Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

In terms of the film, these final revelations act to complete Fischer’s character arc and demonstrate that, much like Blume, he is now content. Ultimately proving that he has finally learnt to embrace the awkward and unpleasant changes that come with growing up and has realised that they are beneficial. Most importantly, he has finally found the strength to let go of Rushmore, which in the end primarily served only to hold him back from developing into a wiser and all-round better person. 

Outside of the film, there remains an important lesson that can be taken away from Rushmore. Namely that, although we only come of age once, our lives are filled with a series of our own personal Rushmores and the idea of letting go of them usually seems equally difficult to embrace. Rushmore therefore serves as a reminder that change exists paradoxically as both a daunting prospect and an essential part of an enjoyable life. Overall, it demonstrates that, whilst there is always something to be said for a degree of stability, the absence of change or the resistance to it is always inevitably more damaging than the change itself ever can be.