From crayons to perfume: Top 10 School Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 28, 2010)

It’s a funny thing. I know that this is supremely silly (I’m over 50, fergawdsake)- but as soon as September rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I have to go to bed early. BTW, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies. At any rate,  I offer you  my Top 10 show-and-tell picks for homeroom:

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The Blackboard Jungle-I always like to refer to this searing 1955 drama (produced in an era when ADD-afflicted teenagers were referred to as “juvenile delinquents”) as the “anti-Happy Days”. An idealistic English teacher (Glenn Ford) takes on an inner-city classroom full of leather-jacketed malcontents who would much rather steal hubcaps and break windows than, say, study the construct of iambic pentameter.

Considered a hard-hitting “social issue” film at the time, it still retains considerable power, despite some dated trappings. Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier are appropriately surly and unpredictable as the alpha “toughs” in the classroom. The impressive supporting cast includes Richard Kiley, Anne Francis and Louis Calhern. Director Richard Brooks co-scripted with Evan Hunter, from Hunter’s novel (the author is best-known by nom de plume “Ed McBain”). The film also had a hand in making Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” a monster hit.

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The Boys of Baraka– Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady offer a fresh take on a time-worn cause celebre: what to do about the state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the under funded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor and disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers showcase one program that strove to make a difference. T

he documentary tracks the journey of a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who go to study at a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to personalized tutoring, there is an emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered with a “tough love” approach.

Something amazing happens when these “at risk” kids find themselves in a new environment. Cliché as it sounds, they begin to find themselves, and it is wondrous to observe.  There is no pat denouement, yet the viewer is left with a sense of hope as some of the boys are inspired to push forward and build on the momentum.

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Dazed and Confused– I confess that my attachment to Richard Linklater’s vivid 1993 recreation of a high school milieu circa 1976 has a lot to do with the sentimental chord it touches within me (I graduated from high school in 1974). Such is the verisimilitude of the clothing, the hairstyles, the lingo, the social behaviors and the music that I went into a total-immersion sense memory the first time I saw the film (I’m guessing that the first wave of boomers born a decade before me had a similar reaction to American Graffiti).

This is not a goofy teen comedy; while there are laughs (mostly of recognition), the sharply written screenplay is more about  keen observation and genuine poignancy. Linklater would be hard pressed to reassemble this bright, energetic young cast at the same bargain rates now: Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams and Nicky Katt, to name a few. I give it two bongs up!

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Election-Writer-director Alexander Payne and creative partner Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt) followed their 1995  debut, Citizen Ruth, with this biting 1999 sociopolitical allegory, thinly cloaked as a teen comedy (which it decidedly is not). Reese Witherspoon delivers a pitch perfect performance as the psychotically perky, overachieving Tracy Flick, who makes life a special hell for her brooding civics teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick).

Much to Mr. McAllister’s chagrin, Tracy is running a meticulously organized  campaign for school president. Her opponent is a more popular, but politically and strategically clueless jock (why does that sound so familiar?). Payne’s film is very funny at times, yet it never pulls its punches; there are some painful truths about the dark underbelly of suburbia bubbling beneath the veneer (quite similar to American Beauty, which interestingly came out the same year).

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High-Amy Heckerling’s hit 1982 coming-of-age dramedy introduced a bevy of talent to movie audiences: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards, and Sean Penn as quintessential stoned California surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli (“Learning about Cuba…and having some food!”). A marvelously droll Ray Walston plays Spicoli’s exasperated history teacher, Mr. Hand.

Rolling Stone reporter (and soon-to-be film director) Cameron Crowe adapted the screenplay from his book, which was based on his experiences “embedded” at a San Diego high school (thanks to his youthful looks, Crowe passed himself off as a student). Heckerling returned to the California high school milieu for her hit Clueless.

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The First Grader– Even though I knew from frame one that this was one of those “triumph of the human spirit over insurmountable socioeconomic odds” tales engineered to tug mercilessly at the strings of my big ol’ pinko-commie, anti-imperialist, bleeding softie lib’rul heart, I nonetheless loved every minute of it.

Beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, the film is based on the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who had been a freedom fighter during the Mau-Mau uprising  in the 1950s. Fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, he shows up at his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books. The real story, however, lies in his past. The sacrifices he made are brought deliberately into focus; resulting in a denouement with a powerful, bittersweet gut punch.

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Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes ga-ga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player at school. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he is.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence- girls are light years ahead of the boys getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think, as Forsyth is a master of low-key anarchy . You may have trouble navigating those Scottish accents, but it’s worth the effort. Also with Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as lead singer of 80s band Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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if…. – In this  boldly anarchic 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses his depiction of the British public school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the recurring character of Travis in Anderson’s  “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e. the “System”).

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film has ittle to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said,  Anderson’s film could be read as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, (or tangentially) The Chocolate War and Rushmore.

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To Sir With Love-A decade after he co-starred in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier traded his switchblade for a lesson plan; it was his turn to play the mentor. This well-acted 1967 drama offered a bold twist on the prevalent narrative of its time period. Movie audiences were accustomed to watching an idealistic white teacher struggling to bond with a classroom chockablock with unruly (and usually “ethnic”) inner city students; in this case, you had an idealistic black teacher struggling to bond with a classroom chockablock with unruly, white British working class students.

It’s a tour de force for director James Clavell, who also wrote and produced. Culture clash is a dominant theme in Clavell’s novels and films (most famously in Shogun). The film is also a “swinging 60s” time capsule-thanks to an onscreen performance of the theme song by Lulu, and an appearance by the Mindbenders (don’t blink or you’ll miss future 10cc co-founder Eric Stewart). Also with Judy Geeson (in a poignant performance) and future rock star Michael Des Barres (lead singer for Silverhead, Detective, and Power Station).

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Twenty-Four Eyes-This moving drama from Keisuke Kinoshita could be the ultimate “inspirational teacher” movie. Set in an isolated, sparsely populated village on the ruggedly beautiful coast of Japan’s Shodoshima Island, the story begins in 1928 and ends just after WW 2. A simple yet deeply resonant tale about a long term relationship  between a compassionate, nurturing teacher (Hideko Takamine) and her 12 students, from grade school through adulthood.

Many of the cast members are non-actors, but you would never guess it from the uniformly wonderful performances. Kinoshita enlisted sets of siblings to portray the students as they “age”,  giving the story a heightened sense of realism. The film, originally released in 1954, was hugely popular in Japan; a revival years later enabled it to be discovered by Western audiences, who warmed to its humanist stance and undercurrent of anti-war sentiments. You may want to keep a box of  Kleenex on standby.

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And now to play us out of study hall, here’s Rockpile:

Class dismissed!

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