Tuesday, May 29, 2007

FILM: "Chalk"

Pop those books back open; it's time to go back to school, a place where time is recorded by the weeks, days, minutes, and seconds to the next holiday. Chalk has none of the dry, cough-inducing dangers of its subject: instead, Mike Akel's docucomedy is a nice, intentionally awkward look at how teachers cope with schools and why so many of them quit within the first three years. It's as serious a look as it is a funny one, and despite being scripted, it serves as a good launchpad for Morgan Spurlock Presents, an initiative to produce films with "social relevance."

The film grounds itself in four characters (rounded out by a brilliant ensemble of teachers and students): three teachers at different phases of their careers and a former teacher turned assistant principal. As the first-year newcomer, Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer) is a mess, as much unable to manage himself as his class. He's the total opposite, in fact, from the third-year challenger for Teacher of the Year, the energetic and charismatic Mr. Stroope (Chris Mass). And it's quite another story with the overly competent and pushy second-year gym teacher, Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), who is so in control that she can't get a date. The different perspectives are competently handled, but because each character has such unique struggles, its sometimes hard to remember they're in the same school.

Then again, there's only so much a director can reveal in ninety minutes. Akel's best is drawn from short scenes with Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) that show her panicked attempts to stop fights, find students, deal with parents, and--worse yet--quell teacher complaints. The best moment of the film shows her covering for a late substitute teacher, glowing with the joy of being around students who want to learn.

The film isn't all roses, but it also lacks thorns. Mr. Lowrey is used as a punching bag, but Chalk is a comedy, and his nightmare class lacks the rough edges or violence of a more urban public school. However, it does give Akel the element of surprise: Lowrey's one explosive argument with a student is affecting, whereas Stroope's breakdown smells like melodrama. It's fine to use Teacher of the Year debates to illustrate another aspect of school, but it comes across as a political parable, and it doesn't seem as important as what Lowrey, Webb, and Reddell are going through. The delicate frisson of the classroom just isn't there, nor is the originality of events like the "Spelling Hornet," a slang spelling bee that teachers participate in for the students' entertainment. Instead of being played for laughs, Stroope would be better as a catalyst for big "behind-the-scenes" numbers--a faculty meeting, the teacher's lounge, happy hour--where his personality can get the ensemble loosened up and talking about their never-ending days.

Chalk is done very well, breaking into a genre that Christopher Guest has dominated for the last several years. It rings with truth and is very rarely smarmy: the only scene that calls for an immediate erasure is a dream sequence that is out of place cinematically, dramatically, and thematically. But that's Akel's homework: your do-now exercise should be to grab a bookbag (you can stuff it with snacks) and get down to the theater to watch Chalk. It's not just for blackboards anymore.

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