ChalkReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/27/06 08:59:20
SCREENED AT THE 2006 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: It's not necessarily a good thing when folks who should know say a movie is dead on; my least favorite movies are the ones that capture something unexceptional perfectly. Still, when the teachers behind me said that "Chalk" pretty much nailed the experience of being relatively new at that job, I was glad to hear it. Nothing wrong with the movie making us think about how stressful a teacher's life can be, especially since it's so funny throughout.Chalk is presented in the half-documentary format of television shows like Arrested Development and The Office: There's little indication that the characters are aware of a camera, and it seemed to have more coverage and close-ups than a real low-budget documentaries would probably have, but makes frequent use of "confessional" and post-shoot interview footage. It follows four teachers in an Austin high school: Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), a first-year history teacher whose lack of self-confidence is countered by Mr. Stroope (Chris Mass), on his third year whose ambition is to win Teacher of the Year within his first five despite not really being that good at teaching history. The gym teacher, Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer) would like us to know that despite having short hair and being a gym teacher (and kind of pushy), she is not gay; her friend Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) is starting her first year as an assistant principal after having been the chorus leader.
The characters don't work in a school that's any more underfunded or full of bad kids than normal, so what you get is an education-specific workplace comedy, where much of the humor comes from the sheer pettiness of the arguments, or how tiny problems seem magnified by daily repetition. Take the opening shot of an anonymous teacher trying to use a paper-cutter, a thoroughly annoying piece of office equipment I've never seen outside of a school (you know, that square with a grid for lining up papers and a blade on a hinge) and just having it be a pain in the neck. A minor annoyance, but it's a sign of how tight things are (they have to use this thing to reduce paper consumption), and as the simple mechanical device fails over and over, the audience gets an idea of how it would grow annoying on a daily basis. The same goes for Coach Webb's harping on teachers not giving out tardy slips; funny to us but it must make the other teachers hate her. Similarly, Troy Schremmer's first classroom scene, where he awkwardly tries to engage the students only to be met with stone silence, is funny in a way that makes the audience squirm as soon as they put themselves in that position.
According to the Q&A afterward, that scene was one of the first shot and set the tone for much of the rest of the movie. Though the four main characters are played by actors, much of the rest of cast is actual students or other teachers improvising along with them. It could have gone the zany route, but instead mostly goes for dry, putting the audience in uncomfortable situations were we laugh nervously to relieve the tension.
There's plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, too. Webb's introduction of (outdated) club dancing to her P.E. curriculum is a bizarre sight, as is the teachers happily playing in the park during April vacation. The biggest belly laughs, though, come from the "spelling hornet", an annual event at this school where teachers are quizzed on the spelling of contemporary slang by their students. It is a dead-on hilarious role reversing spoof of Spellbound and the movies that have tried to cash in on it's success. Mrs. Reddell runs through the hallways with a walkie-talkie like something out of Cops, chasing down students skipping class.
Director Mike Akel has spent time in the public-school trenches, as has co-writer Mass, so he knows what he's talking about. They give their performers a lot of room to ad-lib while still keeping things structured. His cast is entirely unknowns - during the Q&A, Akel joked with the cast that he wished them all the success in the world but them not having enough credits for SAG membership kept the costs down - but they fit their roles perfectly. Troy Schremmer is all awkwardness and self-doubt, and gets the audience in Lowrey's corner so that they're with him when he snaps over student cell-phone use and competes in the spelling bee. His real-life wife Janelle makes Webb more difficult to like despite her being earnest and kind of goofy (she would be an annoyance). Mass has a fun turn as a guy who doesn't really have the smarts to demand the respect he thinks he deserves (he admonishes a student not to know as much history as him in class), while Shannon Haragan hits the right note in her mounting frustration with having to deal with students and teachers more antagonistically as an A.P. Also, Jeff Guerrero, an assistant director stuck into scenes to show that the faculty is larger than just those four - grabs some of the best lines.From what I gather, teachers found this to be dead-on perfect. I'm not a member of that esteemed profession, but I laughed hard throughout. Put the two together, and it's obvious that "Chalk" is doing something right.
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