Chalk

2006, Movie, PG-13, 84 mins

Review

CHALK
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Writer Chris Mass and writer-director Mike Akel's mockumentary about the miseries and occasional joys of teaching was developed through improvisation and shot on digital video in an Austin, Texas, high school.

Akel and Mass bring their own academic experience to bear on this comedic look at three teachers – assertive second-year coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), plus two history teachers: awkward newbie Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer, Janelle's husband) and ambitious third-year politicker Mr. Stroope (co-writer Mass) – as they make their way through one year at mediocre, under-funded Harrison public high school. The passionate, dedicated but abrasive Webb manages to offend everyone with her rigid adherence to rules, constant complaints about other teachers and demands; even reasonable requests, like uniforms for the Hornets – the girl's volleyball team -- come off as pushy. Webb eventually alienates her only friend, former choir teacher Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), who was abruptly promoted to assistant principal when her predecessor went to jail and is drowning in her new responsibilities. Egotistical blowhard Stroope is determined to win Teacher of the Year Award, despite the fact that he's a flat-out terrible teacher – his loss to veteran educator Miss Townshend (Jacqueline Seaborn) occasions a minor meltdown. Divorced, insecure Lowrey is a walking compendium of tyro teaching errors. His students walk all over him, but he eventually gets to shine at the school-sponsored Spelling Hornet, in which teachers try to spell current slang and stumble dismally over words like "shistey" and "badonkadonk." "Could you use that in a sentence?" they plead, occasioning fits of giggles from the student audience. It's the film's most inspired and energetic sequence, and a welcome respite from the otherwise dreary spectacle of day-to-day classroom life.

Mass and Akel are deeply sympathetic to educators trapped in a dysfunctional system, and their modest little film is a bracing antidote to clichéd inspirational stories about dedicated teachers transforming classrooms full of foul-mouthed hooligans into model students. The Harrison High teachers' victories, such as they are, are small and fleeting. Some of them commit to stay and some cut and run – the movie opens with the dismal statistic that most teachers quit after three years. Akel and Mass see the humor in the situation, but the laughs are small and sad. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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