[30 September 2007]
The best thing about Chalk is what it is not. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, until you start noticing the absence all the damning cliches that sink so many other films about high school teachers. To wit: Chalk is neither preachy nor uplifting; the teachers are not especially inspirational, nor are they on some sort of mission of salvation. The kids are, well, just kids, with no tale-of-woe back-stories and have no need of any sort of redemption. There is no agenda, no socially responsible message, none of the sort of racially contemptuous pandering equating the educator with some Great White Hope, as some sort of savior, leading her flock out of the darkness of ignorance.
In other words, Chalk, an excellent little film written and directed by ex-teachers Mike Akel and Chris Mass, (the latter of whom also stars). It is not as self-seriously strident as Dangerous Minds, nor as embarrassingly full of treacle as Mr. Holland’s Opus, nor as, (somewhat refreshingly), harsh as Half Nelson, (which upends the whole typical “white teacher/racially diverse students” dynamic, but only just). Those films are fine for what they are, I guess. Though these films often bear the “inspired by a true story” tag, to me they’ve always smacked of the sort of jerry rigged wish fulfillment that make for slam dunk Hollywood hits but leave one none the wiser for what the mundane day to day struggles of teachers are like.
Chalk‘s whole raison d’etre is bent on correcting this lack of honest cinematic portrayals of the teaching profession, and in its own modest way, it is a success. Adopting the shaky-cam faux documentary/confessional style which is finding a fair modicum of success now with the American version of The Office, Akel’s film follows four fledgling teachers for one academic year in a fictitious Austin, Texas high school. Nothing is romanticized, there’s no overarching narrative here, just the daily thankless toil of those brave or foolhardy enough to want to make some sort of difference in their students lives.
Starting off with the ominous statistic that 50% of new teachers quit within their first 3 years, the film quickly jumps to the classroom of rookie Mr. Lowrey, (Troy Schremmer), who is stiff, stuttering and obviously in way over his head. He’s in big trouble from the get go since the kids can already smell blood. Though his yearlong trials serve, (somewhat), as the main arc of the film, he is in no way the hero, the great inspirational teacher, and there is no great transformation or revelation awaiting him at the end of the year. He loosens up a bit, sure, finds his groove, and finally begins to hit it off with his kids. He even wins the school’s reverse spelling bee, where teachers attempt to spell out their students’ slang. But in the end, there’s no great revelation, no certainty he’ll even be back.
Compare him with loose cannon Mr. Stroope, (played by co-writer Mass), who thrives in front of his captive audience and lives for teaching, but for all the wrong reasons. His teaching method involves telling endless string of groan inducing jokes, pulling kids aside for one-on-ones that are motivated by self-serving mock concern, and doing very little actual teaching. He wants to be everyone’s friend, as long as everyone acknowledges he’s the top dog. His misguided campaign for Teacher of the Year, in which he ropes his students into running for him, ends predictably in defeat. Yet there is no realization on his part of how obnoxious and overbearing he is and how much of a liability this is to his success as a teacher.
I like how Chalk refuses to overlay the teachers’ sundry struggles with just keeping it together day in and day out with any sort of awareness of a personal journey. There is no glorification here, no deification of the teacher, yet this does not detract from the essential worthiness of the profession. The rewards, the joy, are in the little details, the moments, which generally get overlooked in most movies about teachers. I love the quiet smile flitting across assistant principal Mrs. Redell’s, (Shannon Haragan), face as she fills in for an absent teacher, a rare moment when she remembers why she got into education in the first place. Or how Coach Webb, (Janelle Schremmer), turns one of her gym classes for her self-conscious, overweight students into an impromptu dance party, making them forget themselves and just have fun. I’m guessing it’s these fleeting moments, rare and treasured, that keep teachers sane over the relentless school year.
And yet, as much as I like Chalk, (and I like it quite a bit), it’s hard to figure exactly what it’s getting at or if it’s getting at anything at all. It’s an enjoyable film, to be sure. It is zippy and quick and has a lot of genuinely funny moments, and yet it feels a bit inaccessible. Because I am not a teacher, I am always on the outside looking in. Though most of the actors are not teachers themselves, (many of the bit players are), both filmmakers come from the ranks. This is their first film and it seems like it is very much made for them, and their peers and friends in the profession. It’s not exactly insular and off-putting, it’s just that I think Chalk only succeeds as a film for its intended audience.
Judging by the reception it got when I first saw it in April 2006 at the Boston Independent Film Festival, that target audiences loves it, a LOT. The screening I went to was long sold out, and was actually moved to a bigger theater because of so many local teachers wanting to pile in to the screening. This was the perfect audience to see it with, lots of infectious laughter and sighs of recognition, knowing nods at one another, cringing at other moments.
Watching Chalk again a year later at home, I missed this sort of electricity and noticed more how much the film relied on inside jokes and experiences. It’s tough to see it appealing to a more general audience, especially one that has certain expectations of what teacher based movies should be. It’s too breezy and insubstantial to really make a lasting impression, and it doesn’t really encourage one to enter the profession though to be fair, it doesn’t really discourage either. What it is, maybe, is the perfect gift to give that one beloved teacher who made a lifelong lasting impression, whom we remember fondly for making that crucial difference in our lives, which we maybe never fully realized at the time.
Chalk has a handful of extras, none especially compelling. A behind the scenes documentary is too short to really shed much light on the process, and a few mock PSAs about teaching fall flat. The obligatory commentary track, with Akel, Mass and Morgan Spurlock, (who is included because he championed the film last year on the festival circuit), has a few interesting tidbits and trivia, like how all the characters in the film were named after their favorite teachers, or how the students in the film were their actual students. The process of the film itself, which rlies heavily on improvisation, is only really glanced on, so it’s tough to figure how much of Chalk‘s amateurism is deliberate or accidental. Better, I think, are the essays from the filmmakers and cast about their own favorite teachers, (reading on a DVD?! Gasp!), but that’s really about it. We expected better from you on your home release, Chalk!
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/chalk/