Thursday, September 8, 2011
This is the trailer for a partially improvised documentary about a year in the life of four public school teachers (and administrators) called Chalk (2006). I don't like to use trailers because they are not the movie and often contain things that are not in the film or distort the tone of the film. But this trailer is reasonably accurate and gives a sense of the upbeat deadpan tone of Chalk. Its immersive quality is reminiscent of Christopher Guest's films but at no time do the characters have the distance and occasional aloofness that sometimes visit the Guest films.
These teachers are not above the events in the movie -- they're not above anything. Neither are they caricatures or buffoons. Well, one is a buffoon, but the film is not out to be cruel. And never has the terrible yet sometimes rewarding experience of the first year of teaching been so well represented on film.
A real, grass-roots mockumentary like Chalk highlights how TV series like The Office and Modern Family, funny as they are, have bastardized the form they sprung from. Chalk uses only a handful of professional actors, filling out the cast with friends, family and real teachers and students. One of the funniest teachers, a seriously repressed neurotic, is played by the film's assistant director. None of the teachers is dishonest or contemptuous, or a lout. They are genuinely trying to do their best. Some are under-experienced, some are overworked, some lack perspective on themselves and one teacher is just not very bright. That happens, although not as often as politicians would have you believe. But they all want to do well by the students.
[I didn't see the Cameron Diaz atrocity Bad Teacher because I refuse to patronize a movie that says that a drunken lazy slut can become a teacher without any accountability. Sorry if I'm a little over-sensitive, but that just doesn't strike me as funny. What if they made a film about a drug-addled terrorist who became a uniformed police officer? Does that make any sense? Is it funny? Neither was Bad Teacher's premise.]
Chalk is unique for maintaining the teachers' points of view. Students do not become significant or notable characters. (This is not true in a teacher's working life, but they had to keep the thing down to 90 minutes.) This manages to defuse the traps of sentiment and melodrama that something like Up the Down Staircase was inclined to fall into.
But what I've failed to say is that not one minute goes by in this film that doesn't make you laugh. Or at least made me laugh. And some minutes much more than that. And its sincerity and lack of condescension make you feel as though you saw something when it was over, not just a string of gags and blackouts. I especially recommend this to my fellow teachers -- it is funny because it is very true. (Incidentally it is available on Netflix streaming until February when the Starz contract expires.)