Chalk (Mike Akel)
If you look back on most high school related movies, from “Breakfast Club” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and the pseudo Columbine inspired film “Elephant,” they all derive is from the student’s perspective, which typically puts the teacher in the enemy camp. “Chalk,” having been written by two filmmakers who also have spent hours running the classroom at high schools in Austin, now spotlights the struggles of teachers, both the newbies, the more experienced pros, even the admins who all work at Harrison High School.
As a mockumentary of sorts, “Chalk” opens with what I’m guessing to be a factual statistic: 50% of all teachers quite within the first three years of when they started in the educational profession. No shock there. Many parents shy away from dealing with their own children. Those adults who are paid a little more than a Starbucks barista to help mold girls and boys during their most difficult growing years don’t always last to see a freshman grow and graduate as a senior.
Filmed in with documentary film style, as if being shown as a news style special, the dry and comedic twist seen in Ferris Bueller comes about in the classroom, especially for first year teacher Mr. Lowrey and his history class his awkwardness is met by a great sense of apathy by the students. He seems to be a former engineer who was laid-off after operations were farmed out to India, and after a divorce he’s grappling to find himself and find his way in this new career.
At times, even though you know this is not real, it is painful to watch Lowrey’s frustration and the kid’s indifference and mockery of his lack of control, even though this scenario is pretty typical in real life. Poor guy is checking out books on classroom management, so yeah, the first year rookie is having a rough time of it.
Mr. Stroope, who doesn’t seem to have progressed much since he was a student himself, is attempting to where the shoe on the other foot, but instead of devising excuses for late homework, he’s now having to defend his reasons for late lesson plans. His one-on-one talks with students isn’t about applying themselves, it’s to encourage them not appearing to be smarter than him during class time, especially since this year he’s sure he’ll win his campaign for “teacher of the year.” Maybe his next move up the career ladder will be working for the Bush administration. The target practice he performs out in the woods to let off steam would put him a few steps ahead of Chaney.
The use of digicams by the teachers is an added twist to capturing moments, much like a reality show, where the teachers are talking to the small camera as if they are in session with their therapist. Coach Webb, a female P.E. teacher (they still have those?), points out that not all physical education teachers are gay, and hints at the crush she has on another male teacher. Mrs. Reddell, a former teacher who was promoted to assistant principal, expresses her frustration at the long hours she spends in her new position, missing time with her husband and missing the time when she was still in the classroom with students.
One of the funniest questions, because it rings so true, is posed by Mr. Lowrey who vents his frustration about students who are all tied to their cell phones, “What emergency is so dire that you absolutely, positively have to get a hold of a 15-year old, right this minute?”
The sadness level at which our schools operate is actually made funny through the P.A. announcement that due to their lack of funds, they can no longer serve their students fish sticks.
Like “Chariots of Fire,” there is a happy ending. And not one that you would expect. There may even be a girl-gets-boy scenario, but again, not via love notes passed during class or slipped into lockers.
Many kudos go out to the filmmakers/teachers, Mike Akel who directed the film and collaborated with Chris Mass, who also played the part of Mr. Stroope. In order to pull off the documentary vibe, a lot of the footage was taken in an improve setting where actors were given freedom to mold scenes on the fly. This also meant getting tons of footage, so the editing skills definitely played a part in taking 60 hours of film and scaling it down to 85 minutes.
“Chalk” does a fine job of walking the line between comedic entertainment and spotlighting the trials and tribulations an underappreciated and underpaid profession deals with on a day to day basis.