'Chalk' it up

Having spent several years working at public schools in South Central Texas, I’ve long wondered (all too predictably, perhaps) why we don’t more often see big-screen stories about the everyday ups and downs of teaching. Now, don’t mistake me — there’s an impressive slew of films set in or around schools (Elephant, Kindergarten Cop, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Substitute), and it seems nearly like nary a decade goes by without another addition or two to the heart-swelling “Heckuva Teacher vs. Disaffected Youngsters … Now with (Un)expectedly Inspiring Results!” pile: Blackboard Jungle, To Sir, with Love, Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Take the Lead, Freedom Writers. Far less common, though, are the smaller, less superlative, more recognizable depictions of the job and those who do it. Alexander Payne’s Election springs gleefully to mind. (So, for some reason, does the near-and-dear, delightfully over-the-top Carl Reiner comedy Summer School.) The singular Half Nelson might work, if not for the smack thing. Mr. Holland’s Opus, maybe, though it flirts shamelessly with the aforementioned Superteacher syndrome.

So, Election, really.

And now, Chalk.

Described rather aptly as a school-set The Office, the sly, nigh-painfully accurate Chalk follows four young government employees through an academic year at (fictional) Harrison High School. Earnest-but-awkward rookie history teacher Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer) struggles with classroom management and disrespect, plagued by a nagging sense that he may not be quite cut out for the job. Third-year instructor/affable goofball Mr. Stroope (I’ll eat my foot if that name isn’t an homage to Mark Harmon’s freewheelin’ Mr. Shoop, of the aforepraised Summer School), played with relish by Chalk cowriter/true-life high-school geography teacher Chris Mass, embarks full-sail on a campaign to win Teacher of the Year, determined to let no man, woman, or student get in his way. Pixie-haired, lovelorn Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer) must contend with the vague knowledge that her colleagues think she’s (1) pushy and (2) a lesbian, all the while harboring a serious crush on a certain quiet coworker. Finally, new assistant principal Mrs. Reddell polices the halls, chases down miscreants, and laments the fact that her longer hours seem to have neatly replaced her at-home sex life.

Shot documentary-style (with a few notable departures) in Austin by current and former Austin teachers, and fueled by improvisation, Chalk is about as vérité as school comedies get — which results in a number of priceless moments, much too good to spoil here. A small handful of gags don’t work so well (an inspired but out-of-place nod to M.A.S.H. among them), but these are all but swallowed by the committed, perfectly straight-faced performances turned in here. They’re double-take good; it takes a few minutes to discern whether bits are staged or not — perhaps the tallest compliment to director Akel and crew.

Chalk’s drama is small, and all the more real for it: There’s no daunting statewide exam by which the kids must prove to themselves that they’re more than just gangbangers and rugrat dispensers; no self-interested, power-drunk schoolboard to overwhelm with impassioned speeches; no overarching moral about social reform or commitment to youth; there’s not even an illicit student-teacher tryst, for Pete’s sake. (It’s a good thing there’re chalkboards around, else we might not recognize that it takes place in a school.) About the only message you’re likely to cull here: Teachers are people — and not always invariably heroic people, either; just people.


Dir. Mike Akel; writ. Mike Akel, Chris Mass; Troy Schremmer, Janelle Schremmer, Chris Maass, Shannon Haragan (PG-13)

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