Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Regional Review: Chalk

Mike Akel's Chalk aims to do for public schools what Christopher Guest did with small town pageantry.... and folk music.... and dog shows. But where Guest's comedies often veer into exaggerated territory, most of Chalk keeps its humor close to the vest, creating an affectionate and warmly humorous mockumentary. Following the school year of 4 teachers at Harrison High (actually Austin's own Travis County High school), Chalk received a cinematic push when it cleaned up awards at the 2006 Austin Film Festival, went onto strong word-of-mouth at the AFI fest here in Dallas in early '07, and gained Morgan Spurlock as its central spokesperson and executive producer. But I imagine Chalk would've succeeded without it grass-roots exposure because it feels so genuine. And it can also be interpreted as an eerie companion piece to Season 4 of David Simon's blisteringly authentic HBO series The Wire, in which they spent close to 9-10 episodes focused solely on Baltimore's stumbling educational system and its malcontent students. Taken together, both artistic visions represent a scathing yet redemptive portrait of our modern school districts. The Wire does it through harsh political commentary and young kids falling down the rabbit hole while Chalk gives us teachers who care more about winning the "Teacher of the Year" award rather than actually teaching his class anything. But remember, Chalk is a comedy.

There are five main characters we follow in the film. The new guy on the block is Mr. Lowery (Troy Schremmer), a recent engineer-turned-teacher getting his comeuppance by awkwardly stuttering through his lesson plans, dealing with cell phones in his class and an overall confidence problem. Someone not timid and awkward is Mr. Stroope (co-writer Chris Mass), a thirty-something guy who thinks he's got his classes all figured out. Be their friend, win the Teacher of the Year award and float through the semester. And while Mass could've embodied Stroop as a genuine asshole, there's something very casual and laugh out loud funny about his performance, full of improvisation between the actual students and himself. There's a rapport built up between him and the students that's hard to shake. We're also introduced to Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), petite and short-haired who prefers to teach yoga in her gym class rather than volleyball and basketball. She develops a crush on Mr. Lowery. As real life husband and wife, a small but unacknowledged flirtation erupts between the two on film and director Akel adequately exploits the sexual tension just under the surface between these two. It's to his credit that we're given so much with so less. Finally, there's Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), a music teacher promoted to assistant principal and struggling to find the balance between old friendships (with Coach Webb) and carrying out her administrative duties.

What's most impressive about Chalk is the way it eschews so many 'school drama' cliches and pulls gentle laughs out of its talented and amateur cast. One of the more exhilarating and profound examples of this generosity lies in the "slang bee" that the teachers take part in. Apparently a tradition at Harrison High, the teachers are put on stage by the students and have to spell out slang terms the students use throughout the year. What could have come off as mawkish and stunted turns into a moving vignette of teachers and students bonding over generational gaps and ethnic backgrounds. Everyone sells this moment in the film as believable, and perhaps, what we need more of in this intellectually stunted world are more selfless moments like the slang bee and less self-righteous divisions between educator and student. Chalk is still, after all, just a well intentioned comedy, but it ends up saying a lot more than so many well intentioned films. Director Mike Akel is one to watch.

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