Consider the view of Kevin Williamson, presently king of all he surveys. As writer-thinker-upper of the first two Screams, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and the WB’s hugely popular Dawson’s Creek (and even given the failure of this past fall’s network-offering, Wasteland), he has spread out before him a vast space of Yes. It’s all possibility, rife with money and talent and hope and the promise of ongoing consumption. He is, in a word, the reigning king of all-mediated teenagerness.
According to the people who would appear to be lining up to finance Williamson’s projects, he has a special gift: at 34, he taps into high schoolers’ worries and delights, updating his own memories enough that the images and ideas seem relevant and meaningful to an audience more than a little used to being duped, spindled, categorized, and targeted. The fact that his scripts do not condescend to their presumed viewers makes Williamson unusual in a business that assumes all consumers are easy. With Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Williamson steps into the much-talked-about next level: he’s directing a studio-financed and -distributed feature, based on what seems to be his first script, devised some years ago when he moved from New Bean, North Carolina to LA, land of dreams and opportunities and so very much money.
Not unlike The Faculty, Williamson’s version of last high school horror, Teaching Mrs. Tingle reimagines the monumental awfulness of teachers who are granted far too much power over the average student’s life. Unlike The Faculty, Teaching Mrs. Tingle (originally titled Killing Mrs. Tingle, renamed after the Columbine shootings) is not traditionally scary, with monsters and bloody limbs and such. In stead, it pretends (or perhaps aspires) to delve into psychological ghoulishness, the kid of dementia that you imagine has overtaken your high school teachers, as they seem so determined to fuck with your life at seemingly any cost. Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren) is not from outer space and she’s not equipped with literal tentacles or ingenious special effects. She’s pretty standard as teachers go, a little prissy, a little narrow-minded, and a little self-centered. She embodies a banal if imperious evil, deliberately damaging her students emotionally and materially because she can. Or more precisely, she flunks them for wanting to surpass her own desperate, go-nowhere small town existence.
With Mrs. Tingle’s arc so clearly established she will be taught a lesson the rest of the plot follows a predictable but simultaneously perverse course. Immediately, Mrs. T appears to be out to get Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes, best known, so far, as the consummately vulnerable and adorable Joey, object of creek-bound Dawson’s undying desire). Grandsboro High senior Leigh Ann is painfully perfect and bears her burden with a certain nobility, so that you know she’s the heroine. The only daughter to hard-working, plastic-name-tagged waitress Faye (Lesley Ann Warren), Leigh Ann is earnest, dedicated, and after years of hard work up for a college scholarship… if only she can get an A in history class. But, according to the logic of this film, it’s precisely because Leigh Ann’s motive for grade-grubbing is so patently noble to provide her defeated-by-life, chain-smoking mother with a vicarious ticket out of town that she ironically has nowhere to go: she has nothing to learn, no growth to achieve, character-wise. Leigh Ann’s purity and goodness make her damned boring, which means that the film props her up with other students with more spunk, in order to make her watchable.
When Mrs. Tingle unfairly accuses her of cheating, Leigh Ann goes to the teacher’s creepy Victorian house at night to plead her case (surely an unlikely scenario, but who’s counting?). She’s accompanied by her best friend Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan) and the class derelict/beautiful boy Luke (Barry Watson). Events and emotions escalate, the kids respond without much foresight, and Mrs. Tingle ends up spending much of the film in her mannish pajamas, tied to her bedposts, while her captors ponder their suddenly dire predicament. Mrs. T, meanwhile, tries cajoling, seducing, or browbeating them in order to get free and punish her tormentors with all the cruelty and brutality she can muster.
But there’s no neat way out of this situation for any of them, which means that the script gets increasingly unwieldy and bizarre. It’s not so much that it doesn’t make sense the story manages a kind of internal rationality but the characters seem to fall into movie-like poses more than they behave like anyone you would know. They make up stories so the school authorities believe Mrs. Tingle is out “sick” even though she never has been. And here the strangest twist is that Molly Ringwald, as a dedicated secretary who would like to teach, gets her chance at classroom stardom: the John Hughes movie references are unavoidable but not so keen as they need to be; again, the movie falls short of its potential.
Back at Mrs. Tingle’s house, Save for Jo Lynn’s weird-ass and out-of-place but oddly charming rendition of Linda Blair’s bed-flopping (she performs this scene to prove to Mrs.. T that she can act), the three of them flounder between a tedious lack of imagination (jealous in-fighting or sexual acting out when you expect it, that is, when their situation seems most precarious) and outrageous plot conveniences. One of these involves Mrs. T’s secret lover, a sports coach (played by typecast-bumbler Jeffrey Tambor), who apparently can’t tell the difference between her and Jo Lynn when he’s wearing a blindfold. This kind of contrivance undermines what the movie does almost well, namely, take high school anxieties about omnipotent teachers seriously. Such creatures exist we have all known them but the foregone conclusion (that Mrs. Tingle will learn that lesson) makes her less threatening than pathetic and dreary.
This might suggest that the kids would carry whatever vibrance the movie might muster. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do them any more good turns than it does the great Mirren. They spend the bulk of their screen time doggedly discussing their options and non-options (in a way that unsurprisingly recalls Dawson’s Creek, where all the talk is actually part of its charm). Here the talk is not so interesting, because it suggests that they’re unaware of the seriousness of their situation, and because it leads inevitably and unbearably to the love match between Leigh Ann and Luke (in front of a fireplace, no less). By the time it’s all done with and some violence has been committed against a bystander (not quite innocent, but not part of the scheme to tie up Mrs. Tingle either), the movie feels more tired than it needs to. Leigh Ann, Jo Lynn, and Luke end up in an expected nowhere, but you still get the feeling that the script has simply bailed on them. They and their audience deserve better.