Monday, April 28, 2008

Review of CHALK

What follows is the copy of my rough draft for the DVD review of CHALK. It (or a version mostly like it) will appear in a couple of newspapers next week. Please let me know what you think.
CHALK is a fake documentary that follows the school year of three teachers, with varying years of experience, and a first-year assistant principal at Harrison High School in Austin, Texas. The main characters are Mr. Stroope (Chris Mass) an overly confident third-year social studies teacher who is determined to be named “Teacher of the Year” before the year’s end; Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer) a determined, passionate, and sometimes pushy second-year P.E. teacher and volleyball coach who fights against stereotypes and is determined to change things and people, but won’t change herself; Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) a former music teacher of five years who is now a new assistant principal after the former assistant principal was arrested and found guilty of criminal activities; and Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer) a former business executive who left to corporate world to seek employment where he could make a difference in the world and is now a very anxious and nervous first-year history teacher.

CHALK is unlike any other film I have seen before about teaching. Most teaching movies revolve around one or a group of inspiring teachers who are shown changing the lives of their students, involves some hugely dramatic conflict, and wraps up nicely at the end with the teacher being acknowledged for the huge impact they have had upon their students. CHALK is not like that. The back of the DVD case describes being a “doc comedy style of THE OFFICE” but at a high school. That’s a fairly accurate description of style of the movie. However, it’s not very descriptive about what CHALK is really like. I’ve had some experience teaching in a high school and in my opinion the film, though fictional, gives a fairly decent overview of what teaching is really like: the few highs, the miserable lows, and the huge amount of frustration and inadequacy of each day. There’s a mixture of excitement and drama, comedy, lots of frustration, and just the right about of boredom and tedium. The film probably won’t inspire anyone to enter the profession, but it does provide a nice glimpse into the life of a high school teacher.

There are some discrepancies in the movie and between real teaching. For example, the classes seen in the movie are much too small than the typical high school classroom and there is no mention about testing and the impact that has and is having on changing the typical day in a high school. Still, the movie does a better job than any other teaching film about what teaching is really like. Mike Akel and Chris Mass are the “writers” of the film and Akel’s also is the director, and Mass is one of the stars as Mr. Stroope. Both of these men were former teachers themselves and I believe their experiences are what grounds the movie (mostly) in reality. The film was made for around $10,000 and much of the script was improvised around an outline provided by Akel and Mass. The result is exceptional and is a movie I think that everyone could benefit from watching, though not necessarily enjoying.

It should be noted that though all of the acting in the film is exceptional, there are some standout performances. The first is that of the students. The students in the movie are real life students, many who had either Mr. Akel’s or Mr. Mass as their teacher, and gave up most of their summer to not be paid so they could be in the movie. Their actions and dialogue are real and add to the grounded feeling of the film; they are just being themselves which is what much of the greatest acting ever performed really is. The other standout performance in the film is that of Troy Schemmer who performs Mr. Lowrey. Schemmer does an excellent job of capturing all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a nervous, first-year teacher who is just trying to make a difference in the world and share a passion of his for those younger than he. Lowrey is the heart and soul of the movie and the story, though seemingly not intentionally, revolves around him. For example, the film opens with the statement that “50% of all teachers quit within the first three years,” and it ends with an ambiguous scene of Mr. Lowrey packing his things away for the summer, leaving the audience to guess for themselves if he returns or leaves and joins the ranks of the statistics.

CHALK is an “A” film that everyone should see at least once. Teachers will love it because it is so real and filmmakers should watch it because it illustrates that a huge budget isn’t necessary to make a great movie as long as there is a solid story and script.

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