Rushmore is about people growing up. One of those people, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is a student at Rushmore academy, but the other two are adults. There’s Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and a first grade teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).
Each character is suffering, whether they know it or not. In fact, they all cope in different ways. Max is a member of seemingly every club on campus, and he’s the most social person on paper not many people like him outside of his young best friend, Dirk Calloway. The film begins with a dream in which Max, called upon in a math class, successfully completes a very difficult equation and the class applauds. Then he wakes up in a school assembly and becomes enraptured by the words of Herman Blume, an alumnus with two arrogant young boys (twins) who attend Rushmore.
Blume’s speech encourages some sort of social revolution about taking it to the rich, and Max loves it. So while we see (in the intro credits) that he is well-ingratiated in the Rushmore society, he also has heavy disdain for the people who surround him. It’s like he’s undercover in the Rushmore upper class, and… he is.
He only attends the school on a scholarship from a one act play he wrote in second grade about the Watergate scandal. At present, his grades are suffering and he’s informed that with one more misstep he will be expelled.
On the surface, though, nothing appears wrong. Max always wears his Rushmore uniform, dressed up more than his peers, and when he develops a friendship with Herman, he lies about his father’s occupation. His father, sweet and content, is a small town barber, but Max claims he’s a neurosurgeon.
So Max is always trying to keep up this facade of who he really is. At one point he asks his dad if he’s spending too much time with the dozens of clubs and teams he’s involved in. We think he might finally realize he needs to focus more on school, but he instead wonders if he should spend that time “picking up chicks.” Max is only concerned with how he comes off to other people without realizing that he’s not coming off well at all.
So to backtrack a little, Max befriends Herman, almost inexplicably until we realize how much of a child Herman is. He’s miserable in his own life, with his distant wife and sons he hardly recognizes as his own. Herman sinks to the bottom of a pool during a birthday party for his two sons, desperate to escape, and the shot echoes a similar one from The Graduate in which Ben Braddock, depressed, sinks to the bottom of a pool.
The Graduate (1968)
So just like Max, Herman is looking for an escape. They express their quiet grief in different ways, and they become friends, partially because Max admires Herman and herman sees himself in Max. It’s a nice story of unexpected friendship, but then they both fall in love with Rosemary Cross, the first grade teacher.
Max falls in love with her first, and he makes this point clear to Herman later on. When Rosemary discusses the importance of the Latin language, Max decides to start a petition to prevent Rushmore from eliminating it as a class, even though he previously thought having a Latin class was a waste of time.
Then, when Rosemary demonstrates a fascination with aquariums, Max decides to organize construction of a large aquarium at Rushmore. He never consulted the school, however, and the baseball coach is furious when Max says it will be built on his baseball field. This is the last straw, and Max gets kicked out.
He enrolls at public school, still wearing his Rushmore uniform, and tries to start programs at the new school that will make it feel like his old one.
Max is still in love with Rosemary and tries to get Herman to deliver messages for him. Herman tells Max not to waste his time on Rosemary, and Herman starts to fall for her. When Max discovers this, informed by his young friend Dirk, he starts a childish war with Herman. This involves Herman driving over Max’s bike and Max cutting the brakes on Herman’s car. Eventually they both get tired of this and stop.
Max becomes much more overtly sad, his facade finally crumbling, and he stops going to school, choosing instead to learn the barber trade alongside his dad. Max is convinced at this point that he can never win over Rosemary because she loves Herman. Herman, in one scene, tells Max he hasn’t seen Rosemary in weeks and that she’s still in love with her dead husband.
This is a big revelation (though it’s not a sudden one) into Rosemary’s character. Her husband went to Rushmore, and she becomes a teacher there, clearly walking into his past. She even sleeps in his teenage bedroom. She hasn’t moved on from him, and while grief is an important aspect of life, it’s also a step towards moving forward in a healthy way. She has not gotten there.
Max begins to dive back into his schoolwork, writing plays and starting new clubs and societies. He tries to get Herman and Rosemary back together as he seats them together at the premiere of his new play, a Vietnam war epic.
The film ends with everyone, everyone, from the story together at the performance. Whereas after Max’s earlier play, he lied to his dad about going to a cast and crew party (instead having an invite only dinner with Herman, Rosemary and Rosemary’s friend who wasn’t invited), this time everyone is invited. They all dance and the curtain closes on their story.
Rushmore is a very uplifting film about self-acceptance and self-healing. The trio of Max, Herman and Rosemary don’t realize how similar their suffering is, even if it doesn’t always feel like suffering. Max and Herman in particular are so similar and end up hurting each other because they are hurting on their own. They want the same things, and that’s what causes the conflict between them.
It’s not until they help themselves that they can help each other. Everything we see Max do at first is to help himself. He goes out of his way to save the Latin language just because he thinks it will make Rosemary like him more. At the end he finally begins to do things for other people. There’s even an angry Irish kid who is constantly fighting with Max, and at the end he casts him in his play. The Irish kid says he’s always wanted to be in one of Max’s plays, and Max says “I know.”
There’s another touching scene in which Max introduces Herman to his father, dropping the act that his father is a neurosurgeon. In one expression, Billy Murray shows all the understanding his character finally feels. He’s at last gotten a real glimpse into Max’s life, and it makes him empathize with the kid so much more.
Another striking difference in Max’s character is quantity versus quality. At the beginning, Max Fischer wants to be taken seriously, like an adult, so that’s why he leads all those clubs and lies about his father’s occupation. The clubs and activities are oddly isolating, really just there to stand out on his resume. For example, in the opening title sequence, we see basically yearbook photos of each club, and Max is featured prominently in each one, like he’s holding a trophy rather than experiencing something with friends. At the end his play is communal and brings everyone together, and Max is just one of many in the dancing mass of people. He has fit in and is part of the bigger picture.
*like so many shots from Wes Anderson’s films, this one looks like a painting.